CORAL GABLES (CBS4)- Candidates vying for the spot as Miami-Dade’s next mayor participated in the county’s mayoral debate Wednesday.

Candidates participated in the debate taking place at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables at 11 a.m. also attend a VIP reception followed by a question and answer session. It was their first official debate.

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Senior political reporter and Miami Herald columnist Michael Putney moderated the event. It was a cordial affair with little disagreement on the issues.

All of the candidates vowed to lower taxes, they all complained that Jackson Memorial Hospital’s new CEO, Carlos Migoya’s $590,000 salary was too high, and they all opposed a charter change that would set term limits for county commissioners to twelve years. The candidates all said they think the term limits should be just eight years.

According to CBS4 news reporter Jim DeFede, another thing they all agreed on: The County has been terribly mismanaged.

“I have been the voice of opposition to many of the things that led Carlos Alvarez to be recalled,” former County Commissioner Carlos Gimenez noted. “Unfortunately he did not listen to my advice.”

Wednesday’s debate was sponsored by the Latin American Business Association, and included six of the eleven candidates.

In addition to Gimenez, the panel included Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, former state representative Marcelo Llorente, former County Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Cancio, former transit director Roosevelt Bradley and erstwhile 2 Live Crew front man Luther Campbell.

A few weeks into the campaign and certain storylines are beginning to emerge. Bradley and Cancio are trying to present themselves as legitimate contenders despite the perception they have little chance at winning office. As a result, they struggle to get noticed.

The three candidates believed to be the most viable to win the election – Robaina, Gimenez and Llorente – are all jockeying for position. Given his financial resources, his political base in Hialeah, as well as early polling, Robaina is seen as the frontrunner. He promises to do for Miami Dade County what he has done for Hialeah. He argued he has been able to handle the city’s budget crisis without raising taxes.

But it is doubtful with such a large field Robaina will be able to get more than 50 percent of the vote on May 24. So the question is: Who will finish second and then face him in a runoff a month later.

Both Gimenez and Llorente believe that they can beat Robaina in a head-to-head match-up. They are hoping that recent questions about Robaina’s business dealings as well as an ongoing federal investigation into his finances, will sour voters on Robaina and give them an opportunity to beat him.

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Llorente is mounting a campaign as a fresh-faced outsider who can lead this county into the future. But the problem for Llorente is he may be a little too fresh-faced. He is only 34 years old and outside of an uneventful – some might argue uninspired – stint in the Florida legislature, Llorente hasn’t really accomplished very much.

Asked if he was really ready to take on the $7.5 billion beast that is County Hall, Llorente was once again forced to say Wednesday: “I am absolutely ready and qualified to take on this job.”

Gimenez presents himself as the knowledgeable administrator. A former City of Miami fire chief and city manager, Gimenez offers the wonkish appeal of a man who intimately understands how government works. Gimenez’s greatest difficulty is his ability to connect with voters. He can come across as arrogant. His speaking style is authoritative but lacks warmth or personality.

The wild card is Campbell. Given his name recognition and the angry mood of voters, Campbell could become a threat to finish second and enter the runoff. Voters may turn to him as a protest – or simply for the novelty of saying, “I voted for Uncle Luke.”

Campbell continues to stress that his campaign is for real. During Wednesday’s forum, Campbell was asked, given the raunchy nature of some of his song lyrics, if his candidacy should really be taken seriously.

“My music was my music, it was a form of art and people who know my music inside and out know it was a form of comedy,” Campbell said. “That was the reason why I was able to win at the Supreme Court protecting the First Amendment, the right for all people to express themselves. This community is not a joke to me. I love this community.”

The only sparks in the two hour event was when Robaina was asked about a recent report on CBS4 News that he has allowed gambling machines to proliferate through his city.

Robaina tried to defend himself, saying, “If they are used improperly for gambling purposes, not only is the machine taken but the owner is subject to losing their business tax receipt license.”

But Gimenez saw an opening to attack Robaina, noting: “The fact is when you slap a permit on a machine, you give it an aura of legitimacy. Those machines are illegal and [Robaina’s actions are] making it tougher to remove those machines.”

The special election will be held on May 24th.

Both the mayor’s position and District 13 commission seat were left vacant after a March 15 recall election in which 88 percent of those who voted said then Mayor Carlos Alvarez and Commissioner Natacha Seijas should be removed from office.

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The winner of the election would serve out the remainder of Alvarez’s term, which ends in November 2012.

Jim DeFede