Like their contemporaries everywhere, elderly people in central Florida are afraid.

They worry about getting sick and being unable to pay their medical bills.

They worry that Congress might cut their Social Security benefits.

But the senior citizens here are just as afraid that the country is not maintaining a strong defense.

They're for tougher penalties for criminals and tighter controls on immigration.

And many think a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget is a good idea.

Here they are about equally divided between the Democratic and Republican parties, and while most would identify themselves as conservatives, they become alarmed at talk of slashing funding for programs that benefit the elderly.

In southeastern Florida, the elderly reflect the liberal politics of the urban Northeast, while those living on the Gulf coast have roots in the conservative Midwest. Here there is a mix.

They are a major voting block, and they are being duly courted by Rep. Bill McCollum, the freshman Republican incumbent for this district, and his Democratic challenger, state Rep. Dick Batchelor.

People over 60 represent about 17 percent of the 5th Congressional District's population, but they are expected to account for at least 25 percent of the vote.

Both candidates spend much of their time at high-rise condominiums for the elderly, at government-financed senior citizens' centers and at American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) meetings.

"Obviously the seniors are very important to us," said Vaughn Forrest, McCollum's campaign manager.

"But it's misleading to say that the seniors are a group. They're independent and they're smart. You have to have a complement of issues that all dovetail. You can't go in with one issue and build a campaign around it."

The race between McCollum, 38, and Batchelor, 34, is in some ways a classic liberal-conservative clash, though Batchelor has tried to appear moderate.

McCollum is supported by conservative, business-oriented political action committees, while Batchelor is the favorite of environmentalists and minorities.

Both are almost always asked about Medicare and Social Security cuts at senior gatherings.

Both say no one receiving Social Security or about to retire should be denied benefits.

They differ on mandatory containment of hospital costs to reduce Medicare costs. Batchelor is a strong advocate, while McCollum calls it "more regulation, more socialized medicine."

McCollum supports "incentives" to reduce medical costs.

Batchelor probably has an edge with the district's seniors because of his eight-year record in the state house.

He is the former chairman of the House Aging Committee, and introduced legislation that eliminated the state's mandatory retirement law.

Batchelor also helped develop and expand the state's community care for the elderly program that provided more home care for senior citizens, and he developed a nursing home rating system that set stricter standards for the facilities.

As a first-term congressman, McCollum does not have a long record, but he has sponsored or co-sponsored bills that would exclude from taxation dividends and interest earned by those 62 and older and would remove the upper limit of 70 from the law that protects workers 40 to 70 from age discrimination.

Battle lines already have been drawn among senior groups. When McCollum received an award from the conservative National Alliance of Senior Citizens and mentioned it in his congressional mailing, some seniors in the district were incensed.

They accused McCollum of "deception," noting that the more liberal National Council of Senior Citizens, which has a much larger membership, has given McCollum only a 30 percent rating.

Batchelor has been endorsed by Senior PAC, a new political action committee that considers this year's elections a referendum on Social Security and Medicare because of the talk of major cuts in benefits.