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Shalala's opponents wear kid gloves in first debate with front-runner

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Donna Shalala's opponents spent the last week hammering her for skipping debates and appearing reluctant to publicly discuss her policy positions and defend her long political history.

They finally got her in a room Saturday — and treated her with kid gloves.

Without having to play much defense, Shalala killed the "she-won't-debate" line of attack lobbed at her all week and showed she can hold her own against four opponents who'll need to knock the front-runner back to claim the Democratic nomination in Florida's 27th congressional district. In the friendly confines of the Maurice Gusman Concert Hall at the University of Miami — where she was president for 14 years — Shalala swatted away skepticism about her enthusiasm for gun-control, went whole-hog on recreational marijuana, and promoted her record on the environment.

"I've never been afraid of coming to debate," Shalala said after the forum. "It's no big thing."

Shalala had been chided all week by Matt Haggman, Michael Hepburn, state Rep. David Richardson and Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez for missing a forum held Tuesday by the Miami-Dade Democratic Party — a controversy fueled by the party's decision to withhold her planned absence from the other candidates until the last minute. Shalala skipped the event to attend a screening of a Pets' Trust documentary, and in her absence her empty chair was asked questions about criminal justice, guns and why the University of Miami sold protected pine rocklands to a developer during her time as president.

The Miami-Dade Young Democrats, who hosted Saturday's forum, said Shalala initially declined an invitation to the debate before changing her mind late in the week. Tuesday's debate was the first of the campaign.

"It took a lot of effort on my part and a few others to get her to the table," Richardson said Saturday. "We had to shame her a bit publicly."

But Shalala's empty chair received tougher questions this week than Shalala herself did Saturday.

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