WASHINGTON -- It's hard to say what was more remarkable about Thursday's debate between Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) and his Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy: that they were in the same room in the midst of an ugly race, or the erratic responses from constituents in one of the most mixed-up districts in the country.
The forum, hosted by the League of Women Voters of St. Lucie County, lasted for about an hour as a moderator threw out questions on health care, jobs, veterans issues, foreign policy and abortion. But things didn't get heated until West's history of harsh partisan rhetoric became a topic of discussion.
Right out of the gate, West tried to cast himself as someone willing to stand up to party leaders and work across the aisle, even with people like liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).
"When Dennis Kucinich looked for someone to stand with him against the violation of the War Powers Act in our intervention in Libya, he came across the aisle and asked me to stand with him. And I did," West said. "I stood against the speaker of the House."
But it didn't take long for Murphy to put the spotlight on West's controversies. Murphy told the crowd that the reason he's running for Congress is to push back on "the extremism of people like my opponent Allen West, calling people communists, comparing them to Nazis, Marxists."
"I don't need to spin anything when it comes to my opponent," Murphy continued. "Calling a colleague 'vile,' 'despicable' and 'not a lady' is no way to move this country forward if we're going to be serious about these problems that we face."
Murphy was referring to comments West made about Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) after she challenged his positions on Medicare during a 2011 House debate.
The attacks didn't seem to phase West, who sat quietly with a smile. In fact, Murphy and West largely stayed focused on issues instead of trading barbs in what was their first debate. But it was right around this point when the audience got involved.
As Murphy talked about tiring of Tea Party extremism, the crowd erupted into boos. And then, cheers.
"No extremism, right?" Murphy said with a nervous laugh.
The audience booed him again when he criticized West for comparing Democrats to Nazis. "Bullshit!" shouted one attendee. Seconds later, others in the crowd hushed the rest of them.
That wasn't the first time the audience displayed the sharp divide within itself. The first applause of the debate came when Murphy pledged his support for Obamacare. Minutes later, West, too, got applause when he said he would gut nearly all of the health care law.
Florida's 18th District is about as mixed-up as they come when it comes to politics. As the biggest swing district in one of the most important swing states, the district breaks down to about 40 percent Republican, 40 percent Democrat and 20 percent somewhere in the middle. President Barack Obama carried the region in 2008, but only by 3 percent.
The Huffington Post drove all over the district in August and talked to a dozen random people about the West-Murphy race, as well as the presidential race. Few fell easily into a political party.
Fred Hill, a registered Democrat in Jupiter, said he planned to vote for West and Romney.
"Allen West is my hero," said Hill, who is in his 60s and works in insurance adjustment. "Great man. Fiscally conservative, social conservative. He wants to cut the spending."
Hill raved about West's service in the Army, even a 2003 incident that landed West in hot water and has come back to haunt him in him the campaign: shooting his gun next to the head of an Iraqi detainee to try to scare him into giving information about a plot to attack West and his troops. West, who was a lieutenant colonel, was charged with assault in a military court and faced up to 11 years in prison and a dishonorable discharge. Ultimately, he was fined $5,000 and retired with full benefits.
"He fired his pistol right past the guy's ear," Hill said with enthusiasm. "He got his guys' backs."
Meanwhile, a woman named Virginia, a registered Democrat retiree in West Palm Beach who declined to give her last name, said she voted for Obama in 2008 but won't this time. She said he lost her support when he pushed through a rule requiring employers to provide contraception coverage to employees. The rule includes exemptions for religiously affiliated groups, but that doesn't matter to Virginia.
"The Democrats have something about religious freedom that they're trying to destroy," she said. Still, Virginia said she'll be voting for whoever is running against West.
"I've seen him around for years," she said of West. "I just don't like him."
In total, HuffPost talked to eight Democrats, two Republicans and two independents. Most had never heard of Murphy, but said they planned to vote for him because he's the alternative to West.
"I wouldn't dream of it," Patty, a retired museum curator in West Palm Beach, said of voting for West. She declined to give her last name but said she is an independent. "I think he's too far right. I think he has not a very good military record," she said of West. As for Obama, "I'll vote for him absolutely. The alternative is too frightening."
Steve Smith, a 50-something Republican who works in Port St. Lucie, said he doesn't really want to vote this year. But if he does, it will be for Obama and Murphy. Not that he knew anything about Murphy until his Democrat friend standing next to him explained West as being of "the Sarah Palin variety."
West sounds like "a guy who does not know one end of the ass from the other," said Smith, who was lounging outside at an Irish pub with his friends. People like that "exaggerate their own accomplishments and diminish everyone else's."
Robert Lawrence, a Republican handyman who has lived in Stuart for 25 years, had never heard of West. But once he learned West was a vet and that he got in trouble for the detainee incident, he said he was ready to vote for him. That is, if he's allowed to vote: he did three years in prison for drugs, 35 years ago.
"I think I'm allowed to vote now," Lawrence said as he climbed into his pickup truck outside of a 7-Eleven in Stuart. "I need to check it out, you know? I definitely want to vote for whoever is running against Obama."
He added, "I don't care if it's you."
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