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Fla's Mahoney drops out of debate over TV presence

Brian Skoloff

Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Mahoney, embroiled in an adultery scandal, skipped a planned debate Friday because organizers wouldn't ban television cameras, leaving his opponent to debate an empty chair. Mahoney's campaign also signaled that he may be giving up public appearances entirely as he struggles to overcome reports of two affairs.

With Mahoney a no-show, Republican challenger Tom Rooney simply took questions during the luncheon held by the nonpartisan Forum Club of the Palm Beaches.

"Welcome to what has been billed as a debate between Tim Mahoney and Tom Rooney," said the group's president, Martha McNeal. "As you can see, the challenger Tom Rooney is here with us," McNeal said. "Unfortunately, last night the campaign manager for Representative Tim Mahoney informed us that the incumbent has declined to be a part of today's long-scheduled program."

Mahoney had committed to the debate before news broke last week of his adulterous affairs and potential legal and ethics violations that are being investigated by the FBI and a House panel. Mahoney's campaign said Friday they feared a distracting, circus-like atmosphere if national television media were allowed to attend the debate.

"The media has every right to cover this event," said Gayle Pallesen, the Forum Club's executive director.

Campaign officials said they don't know what Mahoney's plans are for the remainder of the race. A spokesman said Mahoney hasn't decided whether to continue with any more public campaign events or simply wait until Election Day.

"The congressman is taking it one day at a time," Mahoney spokesman Marc Goldberg said.

Mahoney has admitted to having at least two affairs, one with a former staff member whom he paid to keep quiet about the tryst. He is under investigation by the FBI and a House ethics panel, but refuses to resign or drop out of the race. His wife, Terry Mahoney, filed for divorce Monday.

Voters chose the first-term Democrat in 2006 while he ran on a family values platform to replace Mark Foley, a Republican who resigned amid revelations that he sent lurid Internet messages to teenage male pages who had worked on Capitol Hill.

Mahoney's donations are drying up, endorsements are at risk and his public campaigning has come to a standstill. Since Oct. 15, Mahoney has reported just one $1,500 donation.

His challenger a former Army officer and lawyer whose family owns the Pittsburgh Steelers, was questioned by the debate moderator Friday on everything from Iraq to education, health care and energy. But he dodged a question from the audience about how the Mahoney scandal has helped his campaign.

"I will say this," Rooney joked. "My life has gotten infinitely more busy over the last 10 days."

The Associated Press