Bigger issues have pushed the contest to the back of voters' minds, but planned TV ads may liven it up.
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published June 13, 2004
They have crisscrossed the state, but the dozen candidates for the U.S. Senate are struggling to attract attention despite raising millions of dollars, sparring in a series of debates and airing a few television ads.
Among the eight Republicans and four Democrats seeking to succeed retiring Democrat Bob Graham, not one is a household name statewide.
Voters will winnow the field to two when they choose party nominees in primaries on Aug. 31. But until they start seeing more TV ads in the weeks ahead, they will have to look hard to find sharp differences among contenders.
"I don't think anyone has captured the imagination of the public," said James Harris, a Democratic strategist not involved in the race. "It's being overshadowed by the presidential race and everything else that's going on in the world right now."
Polls indicate only about 5 percent of Floridians are undecided in the presidential race, but the Senate race is wide open, with more than one-third of voters in both parties undecided. The early front-runners are Republican Bill McCollum, the former congressman and unsuccessful Senate candidate four years ago, and Democrat Betty Castor, the former state education commissioner and former University of South Florida president.
The Republicans have argued over limits on lawsuits. Democrats have debated whether drugmakers have undue influence in Washington or whether Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas did enough to help Al Gore in the 2000 race for president.
With eight candidates in a winner-take-all primary and no runoff, a candidate could clinch the Republican nomination with as few as 300,000 votes. The winning Democrat might have to do better than that, because only four Democrats are running.
Strategists for some Republican candidates say they expect no more than 1-million votes to be cast in the GOP primary of 3.5-million Republican voters. In the last statewide Republican primary, for attorney general in 2002, about 967,000 Republicans cast ballots.
While the leading Republicans, McCollum and former U.S. housing secretary Mel Martinez, battle for supremacy, two wealthy but little-known Republicans, Doug Gallagher and Karen Saull, have enough money to buy millions of dollars in television ads. Their presence is giving the Republican race a sense of volatility.
"That's a bit of an unknown, for sure," said Republican strategist John Dowless. A former executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida, Dowless has been introducing Martinez to clergymen and social conservatives.
The past week was a metaphor for a still-unformed race overshadowed by other events. Some Republican candidates suspended campaigning following former President Ronald Reagan's death, and a campaign forum in Sarasota was canceled.
The Senate hopefuls will face more distractions in the months to come. Perhaps even more than in 2000, the presidential campaign will eclipse the Senate race.
President Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry have flooded the airwaves with ads, with more to come. Some Senate candidates won't start advertising until July or August, when many people are away on vacation. The summer Olympics is coming, and the Republican convention opens in New York on Aug. 30 - the day before the primary.
The size of the GOP field is an obstacle, too. Civic groups have to be stingy with the clock to give every Republican equal time. At one forum in Naples, a moderator limited the candidates to one minute each, and aides complained that a stage with seven candidates meant less airtime for each of them.
When the candidates aren't raising money, they are courting so-called super voters who reliably vote in primaries, building coalitions with groups such as small business owners or religious conservatives, or working to get on TV or in the newspapers.
McCollum scheduled more than 40 fundraisers in June. In the past week, he said, he raised money in Washington, Brevard County and Daytona Beach. He went back to Washington Friday for Reagan's funeral and will attend the Pasco County Republican Lincoln Day Dinner Sunday night.
To McCollum, the race already is livelier than his previous run in 2000, when he had the GOP nomination by himself at this stage.
"We're out there all the time, and the ones who come are interested," McCollum said. "But it's early, and, by and large, the advertising is not going to take place for a few more weeks. People start feeling engaged when they see the TV ads."
This week, Democratic candidate Peter Deutsch will spend two days flying around the state to call attention to the growing gap between Florida's growth and lack of federal money. The eight-city "fly-around" is also a way for Deutsch to call attention to himself, and he has invited reporters to tag along. As of Friday, three reporters asked about the trip, with none confirmed.
Richard Pinsky, a strategist for Gallagher, said primary voters may be few, but they follow the issues.
"They're informed people," Pinsky said. "They watch Fox News. They listen to talk radio. They eat this stuff up. It's a more informed electorate than you would have in a general (election)."
Florida races are notorious for peaking late, as a vast, disconnected electorate slowly absorbs the effect of saturation TV ad campaigns.
To most voters the candidates won't exist until their 30-second ads start running. The candidates' own messages are sure to be supplemented by ads paid for by third-party groups supporting or attacking candidates.
Most candidates say it is too early to start running ads, and they want to conserve advertising dollars as long as they can.
"It's strangely quiet, at least from my perspective," said J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, a lobbyist and Republican strategist who was a top aide to former Gov. Bob Martinez. "It's kind of formless."
He said interest in the race will intensify when the ads appear.
"We haven't been bombarded with negative television commercials," Stipanovich said. "As much as we deplore them, it piques our interest."
- Times staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report.