Wasserman Schultz, GOP foe spar over cancer issue

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MIAMI (AP) — Florida congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is sparring with her Republican challenger over whether it's appropriate on the campaign trail to highlight being a cancer survivor.

Republican Karen Harrington is accusing Wasserman Schultz, who is also the chair of the Democratic National Committee, of referring to her battle with breast cancer in a recent campaign flier to score political points in her South Florida district.

"I was fortunate. I had good insurance and great doctors. Today, I'm a survivor. But like every breast cancer survivor, I now have a pre-existing condition," Wasserman Schultz says in a campaign flier. She has undergone seven major surgeries in the past year, including a double mastectomy.

The congresswoman mentions being a breast cancer survivor three times in the campaign piece, which is being left at homes in her district.

Harrington, whose own campaign website briefly mentions that she, too, is a cancer survivor and that she advocates for cancer awareness, sharply criticized the Democrat's campaign flier in both a press release and in a fundraising email.

Harrington's fundraising email accuses Wasserman Schultz of using her breast cancer battle to "make cheap political points." The Republican's campaign news release called it "shameful" and said Wasserman Schultz would say anything to get re-elected.

"By exploiting her past bout with breast cancer for political gain, my opponent's actions make the case for why Americans need to vote her out of office," Harrington's statement said.

Harrington, who lost to Wasserman Schultz in 2010, survived a battle with melanoma and later cervical cancer while pregnant. But Harrington said she doesn't feel the need to broadcast it to voters.

"We haven't used it in our mailers or tried to gain votes through sympathy. People are looking for solutions to the problems we face today," Harrington told The Associated Press on Friday.

Harrington said she supports health insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions and has discussed her disease at personal meet-and-greets when the issue of health care comes up.

A spokesman for Wasserman Schultz, however, blasted Harrington's criticism.

"''Harrington's attack is pathetic, tasteless and quite possibly a new low in American politics," said campaign spokesman Jonathan Beeton. "Debbie Wasserman Schultz is at the forefront of those working to raise awareness of breast cancer and was a key supporter of Obamacare, which allows every American to have health insurance to diagnose and fight cancer and prevents survivors from being denied coverage due to their preexisting condition."

After revealing she was a breast cancer survivor, Wasserman Schultz introduced legislation in 2009 to launch a national breast cancer education campaign aimed at young women. She briefly mentions her diagnosis and that legislative bill on her election website. She also wears a pink blouse and breast cancer button on the website photo.

Despite her multiple surgeries, Wasserman Schultz mostly kept her diagnosis a secret at first, telling only a few friends and staff aides. She didn't publicly announce it until after she had completed the surgeries.

Wasserman Schultz soundly defeated Harrington in 2010, but Harrington this year won a five-way GOP primary to earn a rematch.

Associated Press writer Gary Fineout contributed from Tallahassee.

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