Ms. Salazar has tried to cast Ms. Shalala as an elitist outsider. Ms. Shalala, a 15-year Miami resident, calls the criticism a coded way to say she is not Hispanic, though Ms. Salazar denies that. Ms. Shalala’s campaign is making T-shirts that nickname her “La Shalala,” she said, pronouncing it sha-LA-la, instead of the way she normally says it, sha-LAY-la.
For the two women, there is another delicate undercurrent to their rivalry. Ms. Shalala is 77 and Ms. Salazar is 56, an age gap Ms. Salazar says she is not interested in focusing on. But Ms. Salazar’s top backers frequently refer to her “energy.” And when an apron-clad Ms. Salazar served Cuban coffee on Saturday to breakfast patrons at a popular restaurant, she urged Lidia Guallar, 81, to spread the word about her candidacy, “because if not, the socialists and la vieja,” the old lady, might win.
Asked a few minutes later about the exchange, which was overheard by a reporter, Ms. Salazar said Ms. Guallar had used the phrase first. “It’s true,” Ms. Salazar said of Ms. Shalala’s seniority. “But I don’t think people should be judged on that.”
“What is she going to attack me on — I’m old?” Ms. Shalala, who had a stroke in 2015, had said two days before Ms. Salazar’s quip, noting that her mother lived to be 103. “Bring it on.”
As Ms. Salazar has tried to portray herself as a centrist who might back a ban on assault weapons and citizenship for some undocumented immigrants, Ms. Shalala has tried to tie her to Mr. Trump. Ms. Salazar said she voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 “because I was afraid that Hillary was going to get indicted.” (A third candidate, Mayra Joli, who is running without party affiliation, is an unabashed Trump supporter.)
Ms. Shalala has accused Ms. Salazar of dodging questions on substantive issues. Ms. Shalala’s chief area of expertise is health care; last year, the district had the highest number of Affordable Care Act enrollees in the country — 96,300, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Ms. Salazar says she would not have voted to repeal Obamacare without an alternative in place.
Still, Ms. Shalala has vacillated over how much to go after Ms. Salazar for her inexperience. The Democrat has argued that the race should be about each candidate’s qualifications — yet she has also acknowledged that voters will likely elect the candidate they find more personable.
“You don’t vote on policy,” Ms. Shalala said. “You vote on how people feel about you.”