By LIZETTE ALVAREZ
CLEARWATER, Fla. — For as long as most people here can remember, Representative C. W. Bill Young presided over this slice of Florida’s west coast, tending assiduously to veterans and retirees, crystalline beaches, and a booming population. By the time he died at 82 two months ago after 43 years in Congress, Mr. Young was the longest-serving Republican in Congress, and with good reason: He was untouchable at the ballot box.
Mr. Young’s personal dominance kept the seat frozen in place for four decades. But beneath the surface, changes in the area’s electoral map including an influx of Democrats — some of them gay voters and young people — have diluted the share of moderate Republicans, turning it into one of the rare commodities in American politics: a true swing district. Now, his absence has set off a contest in the first race of the 2014 battle for control of Congress, with both parties hoping for a victory and watching carefully how President Obama’s health care law may affect the outcome.
Determined to snatch the long-awaited open seat in the March 11 special election, Democrats effectively cleared the field for Alex Sink, a former chief financial officer of Florida, who ran for governor and lost in 2010. Ms. Sink did not even live in the district, Pinellas County, in October; she packed up and moved one county over last month.
Shortly after, three little-known Republican candidates jumped into the fray. They find themselves competing not only against one another in the Jan. 14 primary but against the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, in which bah-humbug advertising can spoil the merriment. A Libertarian candidate, Lucas Overby, also joined the contest.
Already the race is being viewed as an early litmus test, particularly for the Democrats. Amid the torrent of tribulation still facing Mr. Obama’s health care program, the Democrats are pining for a dollop of good news. A winner here could stoke momentum nationally and in Florida heading into the November election, political analysts said.
“This is as close to a bellwether district as there is in the House,” said David Wasserman, the editor in charge of House races for The Cook Political Report. “If Democrats can’t do it with a great candidate like Alex Sink, they simply won’t be in a position to compete in 2014. That’s why this race is so critical for both sides, but especially for Democrats.”
At the moment, Democrats appear to have an advantage. Unlike her Republican opponents, Ms. Sink will not face a primary. This allows her to aim her campaign cash and speeches solely toward voters from both parties who will cast ballots in March.
It helps that Ms. Sink, 65, a former bank executive who is viewed as a pragmatist with business sense, is well known in Florida politics. She was elected the state’s chief financial officer in 2006. When she ran for governor, she lost narrowly to Rick Scott, a wealthy health care executive who parlayed Tea Party enthusiasm into victory and ran hard against the national health care law. High name recognition is particularly important in a special election, in which lesser-known candidates struggle to overcome truncated campaign schedules and low voter turnout.
Demographics are also beginning to bode well, or at least better, for Democrats, as more Democratic and independent voters have moved into the district, nudging it more toward the political center.
Independents make up 28 percent of voters in Pinellas County. Republicans account for 37 percent and Democrats for 35 percent. Mr. Obama squeaked out victories here in 2008 and 2012, and Democrats won two recent races, one for St. Petersburg mayor and the other for a State House seat, both previously held by Republicans.
Republicans have taken note of the shifting terrain. Despite their desire to hold tight to Mr. Young’s former seat, party leaders tried and failed to draw a top-tier candidate. “With all due respect to Alex Sink, I’m not sure she scared them all out of the race,” said Screven Watson, a Democratic strategist and a former executive director of the state’s Democratic Party. “Part of it was they have seen that the voting behaviors of this area have changed.”
Not one of the three Republicans who are running — David Jolly, 41, a lobbyist and a former general counsel to Mr. Young; Kathleen Peters, 52, a former small-town mayor and a first-term State House member; and Mark Bircher, 60, a lawyer and a retired brigadier general with the Marine Corps Reserve — is a household name.
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Still, Ms. Sink must contend again with Mr. Obama’s health care law, an issue that hurt her in 2010 and makes many retirees in this district uneasy. Three years later, with the president’s popularity near a low point and his health plan still under siege, Republicans are once more attempting to lash her to the issue.
“You can run from your support of Obamacare, but you certainly cannot hide,” the Republican congressional campaign committee said in a mock advice pamphlet that went on to criticize Ms. Sink and other Democrats who supported the president’s health care plan.
The health care issue is so combustible that Mr. Jolly and Ms. Peters have also started hurling it at each other in campaign mailers and at news conferences.
In an interview at her campaign office here, Ms. Sink called the health care rollout a “mess” and said the logjams needed to be fixed.
“My word, coming from my world, the business world, doing these computer rollouts and designing these new systems is highly complex,” she said. “It’s been very poorly handled and not very well thought out.” But she added, “We can’t go back to where we were.”
She emphasized her track record as a “problem solver,” a trait that she said was sorely needed in Washington. “I’ve always worked well across party lines,” Ms. Sink said. “The most important assignment is to be a good listener.”
But her abrupt move into Pinellas County , also opened her up to barbs.
“That left the impression that she is sort of hedging her bets: Should she lose it, will she be a resident one year from now?” said Darryl Paulson, a professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg.
Mr. Jolly was one of the first to jump on the address change.
“The voters of Pinellas County did not ask Alex Sink to move here and run,” Mr. Jolly said in an interview. “She is a candidate of the national party machine.”
Mr. Jolly, who has worked for years in Washington and counts that as a benefit, is being portrayed by his opponents as part of the Beltway problem. Ms. Peters has no Washington experience but has said she best knows the county and its issues. Mr. Bircher has said he excels at running large organizations. For now, Republican loyalties in the district seem to be divided between Mr. Jolly and Ms. Peters.
With absentee ballots already in the hands of Republican voters — in a district where many vote absentee — the candidates’ biggest challenge remains penetrating the holiday din.
“Competing with Christmas cards, catalogs and after-Christmas sales is a very big challenge,” said David Johnson, a Republican consultant in Florida.
March will come quickly on the calendar, he said, and the outcome is sure to resonate. “Democrats have been waiting of a very long time; they are very hungry,” he said.