With less than three weeks to go to Election Day, the two candidates for Orange-Osceola state attorney pleaded their cases before about 500 community movers and shakers gathered in a downtown Orlando ballroom.
Lawson Lamar, who's held the office since 1988, is facing his first serious challenger in Jeff Ashton, who worked under Lamar until retiring one year ago after losing the Casey Anthony murder trial.
And he wasted no time going after Ashton, calling him "the quintessential disgruntled employee" who often did not show up for work, whether calling in sick or attending a prosecutor's conference.
"We threatened to remove him from Casey Anthony because he kept on not showing up for work," Lamar said.
In a backhanded swipe at Ashton's failure to obtain a conviction in the Anthony case, Lamar told the audience, "Most of you probably didn't know of my opponent before he capitalized on his success in terms of being on the media in the Casey Anthony case. "
Afterwards, Ashton offered this explanation for Lamar's aggressive stance at the debate: "I think Mr. Lamar realizes he is in trouble. His record is not going to win this election, so I think he is realizing that the only way he has a prayer is to be negative about me."
Judges, attorneys and politicians crowded into the Presidential Ballroom at Church Street Station for the lunchtime debate sponsored by the Tiger Bay Club and Orange County Bar Association. A straw poll taken at the event gave Lamar 173 votes to Ashton's 152, a 53 percent to 47 percent margin.
Ashton continued to criticize Lamar's office for having one of the lowest conviction rates in the state.
Lamar argued, "Conviction rates are pure hokum. If you only charge easy cases and you take light pleas you can have the highest conviction rates in Florida and not one person will ever be incarcerated."
But Ashton said the problem runs deeper, citing another statistic: in 14 percent of trials, he said, judges toss out cases "because they are so completely insufficient that a jury can't even hear them. That is a sign not of trying hard for victims, that is a sign of incompetence."
Ashton gained widespread attention as one of three prosecutors who failed to persuade a jury that Casey Anthony murdered her daughter, Caylee. That name recognition, as well as his aggressive courtroom style, have raised Ashton's profile in the community.
It also elicited criticism from Lamar.
"You don't laugh at the defense, you don't chuckle or snicker, or smile or whatever it was," Lamar said when asked about Ashton's courtroom demeanor. "It was my bad. I didn't go over and remove him during the proceeding."
Ashton made no apologies. "I argue with passion for every victim in every case and if that bothers somebody, that's too bad."
The race between the two Democrats will be decided by all voters, regardless of party, on August 14 because no Republican or other candidate qualified to run against them.