The candidate for U.S. Senate brushes off opponents' questions about his electability.
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published June 28, 2004
TALLAHASSEE - Bill McCollum lost his last race. Did it help him or hurt him?
That question hovers over Florida's Republican primary for the U.S. Senate.
McCollum, a former congressman from suburban Orlando, is the best-known of eight Republican Senate candidates. His name is still fresh in voters' minds as a result of his first Senate race four years ago.
But McCollum lost that race to Democrat Bill Nelson, and the defeat is dogging him this time around as other candidates and some Republican activists question his electability.
McCollum, 59, says the loss strengthened him. He notes that all but one of Florida's current statewide officeholders, including Gov. Jeb Bush, lost their first statewide races. He says it takes one trip around the statewide political track to build a network of supporters, learn to campaign effectively in a sprawling state, and attain the name recognition politicians covet.
"As a result of having run before, you're stronger the next time, if you ran a good race, and we did," McCollum said. "The reality is I won election 10 times - actually more than that, if you count the primaries - in a congressional seat that originally ran from Clearwater Beach to Orlando."
McCollum, who served 20 years in Congress, calls questions about his electability a "red herring."
But some opponents, notably supporters of former U.S. Housing Secretary Mel Martinez, say the 2000 loss raises questions about whether McCollum can win a general election against a well-financed Democrat.
"We all saw what happened against a very weak opponent in 2000," said Bill Miller, political director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, referring to Nelson. "At a minimum (the Democratic nominee) is going to be at least as strong as Congressman McCollum faced in 2000."
The U.S. chamber said it was throwing its support behind Martinez in part because of his "viability" in the general election, when many moderate and independent voters also will be casting ballots. Martinez cited the chamber's support as a sign of momentum, noting the same group backed McCollum in 2000.
Martinez's supporters say his emotional life story, as a teenage refugee rescued from Castro's Cuba, will be a powerful force in November, especially with Hispanic voters.
But McCollum said he is "befuddled" by the idea that Martinez is more electable, pointing out that the only race Martinez has won was a nonpartisan countywide race in Orange County.
Martinez also ran statewide once. He was the candidate for lieutenant governor on a 1994 ticket with Ken Connor, a lawyer who entered the Republican field for governor as Democrat Lawton Chiles sought re-election.
The Connor-Martinez duo finished fifth in the GOP primary, with 9.3 percent of the vote. Jeb Bush won that primary with 46 percent of the vote before narrowly losing to Chiles in the general election. Martinez was elected chairman of Orange County, similar to county mayor, in 1998.
McCollum is studying the electability question.
His campaign pollster, McLaughlin & Associates, recently asked 600 likely primary voters whether they felt McCollum "lost a race he should have won" in 2000 or "deserves another chance" after "fighting off Democratic attacks."
The poll showed nearly half of voters (44.5 percent) felt McCollum deserved another try, while 19 percent said he ran a poor race and 36 percent did not know or did not answer.
Republican strategist David Johnson said the issue of electability is irrelevant in a primary election.
"Electability is the fool's gold in Republican Party primaries," said Johnson, a former executive director of the Republican Party of Florida who is not involved in the Senate race. "Your primary voters are hard-core. They're going to vote for the person they want. They're not looking ahead to November. It just doesn't work."
Four years ago, McCollum was anointed as the Republican nominee for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Connie Mack. McCollum ran as the heir to Mack's legacy of lower taxes and less government, and he cited his work as one of the House prosecutors in Bill Clinton's impeachment.
But Democrats rallied around Nelson, the state's insurance commissioner, who portrayed McCollum as a right-wing extremist out of touch with mainstream Floridians.
Contrary to the U.S. chamber's claim, few view Nelson as a "very weak" Democrat. He won more votes than George W. Bush, who was declared the winner by 537 votes over Al Gore after five weeks of recounts and court battles.
Nelson carried 38 of 67 counties, including the five largest. Nelson received 51 percent of the vote and McCollum 46 percent. Eight others divided the remaining 3 percent.
Bush's coattails were not strong enough to pull McCollum to victory. Even if McCollum had done as well as Bush in 2000, he still would have lost the election.
A McCollum supporter, Col. George "Bud" Day of Fort Walton Beach, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and former prisoner of war, rejects the questions about McCollum's electability as "a bunch of wind."
What happened in 2000, Day said, is that Nelson had a high profile as a Cabinet member and as a congressman who flew on the space shuttle. He said it was McCollum who suffered from too little name recognition.
"But he's got it now," Day said of McCollum. "I know all those high rollers have picked Martinez, but he ain't going to win this election. He's running behind, and it's going to get worse."