McCollum brands Martinez 'trial lawyer' like Edwards

Published July 7, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - John Kerry's choice for a running mate instantly revived the bogeyman in Florida's Republican U.S. Senate primary: the trial lawyer.

Republican Senate candidate Bill McCollum on Tuesday quickly labeled rival Mel Martinez "the John Edwards of Florida" for his past work as a trial lawyer.

McCollum provided a link to an Internet ad showing Martinez and Edwards sharing the label "liberal trial lawyer."

"The similarities between Martinez and Edwards are striking, and a Martinez candidacy would greatly hamper our ability to present a unified message," said McCollum campaign manager Matt Williams. "Quite frankly, sending such blatantly mixed signals would be bad politics and potentially damaging to the president."

Martinez spokeswoman Jennifer Coxe called the criticism "hogwash" and an effort to drive a wedge between President Bush and Martinez, his former housing secretary.

Martinez championed the Bush tax cuts Edwards opposed, Coxe said, and Martinez's campaign cited two votes in which McCollum's stand is similar to Kerry's or Edwards', such as expanding stem cell research or toughening penalties for hate crimes against gays.

Gov. Jeb Bush called it "incorrect" to liken Martinez to Edwards and said the Republican nominee would not be helped by a primary fight "based on accusations and innuendo."

"Mel Martinez was a successful plaintiff's lawyer, but he's a proven conservative," Bush said. "His views are conservative. He's a Republican. He's in the mainstream of political thought in our state, just as McCollum is."

President Bush has blamed trial lawyers for the high cost of health care, and his campaign immediately attacked Edwards for his background as a plaintiffs' lawyer.

But if McCollum's steady pounding of Martinez is affecting voters, it's not showing up in McCollum's own polling. A McCollum campaign poll by McLaughlin & Associates last month showed that Martinez's unfavorable rating rose only slightly, from 5.5 percent to 7.7 percent, from November 2003 to June 2004.

Martinez continues to attract support from conservatives, and he is outpacing McCollum in fundraising. Most of the current U.S. Senate leadership supports Martinez's candidacy, and he recently was endorsed by two conservative state House members from Lakeland, Reps. Dennis Ross and John Stargel.

A third Senate candidate, Doug Gallagher, is campaigning as a nonlawyer to contrast himself with his lawyer rivals, Martinez and McCollum. Gallagher's strategist, Richard Pinsky, said that the criticism of trial lawyers will intensify as the Aug. 31 primary draws near. The primary is the same week as the Republican National Convention.

"I think "trial attorney' will become an evil word in the primary, probably more than it would have been" if Kerry had not chosen Edwards, Pinsky said.

- Times staff writer Joni James contributed to this report.