Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate fret over some ads they say are critical. One observer says they may backfire.
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published August 20, 2004
TALLAHASSEE - As the Republican U.S. Senate primary heads into its final 10 days, many voters are now paying attention - just in time for a blast of critical ads aimed at undecided voters.
Doug Gallagher, a wealthy Miami business executive, launched a radio ad calling himself a "successful businessman" and labeling rivals Bill McCollum and Mel Martinez "the M&M boys." He called McCollum "a lobbyist beholden to special interests" and Martinez the "president of the trial lawyers."
In the ad, Gallagher points out that he hasn't accepted special interest or PAC money.
"We've tried it their way. Now let's try it our way," says Gallagher, who is financing his campaign with nearly $6-million of his own money. Today, Gallagher's "M&M boys" message will spread to television stations statewide.
But Republican strategist David Johnson, a former party official in Florida who's not involved in the race, said attack ads are risky now because voters in parts of three media markets are much more concerned about electricity, phone service, their homes and their jobs in the wake of Hurricane Charley.
"I don't think the voters of Florida are really in the mood for that sort of thing. Not after the hurricane we've gone through," Johnson said. "I think it will be difficult for Doug to pull that off."
Gallagher's radio ad, however, ignited a political brush fire Thursday among the McCollum and Martinez campaigns.
McCollum's campaign criticized Gallagher for "taking the low road," and predicted Martinez, too, would soon launch attacks. The McCollum campaign said voters won't elect Martinez, a former trial lawyer "who has supported numerous left wing Democrats."
Martinez accused McCollum of "siding with John Kerry to attack President Bush's ban on embryonic stem cell research" and supporting an expanded federal hate crime law "to make homosexuals a protected class."
Martinez is running his own radio ad featuring Ken Connor, a prominent trial lawyer and antiabortion activist who cites the stem cell research issue on conservative and Christian radio.
While Martinez "stands with President Bush against expanded human embryo stem cell research, sadly, Bill McCollum and Doug Gallagher side with John Kerry on this defining issue," Connor says in the ad.
McCollum, a former 20-year member of Congress, is a lawyer with the firm Baker & Hostetler. He is registered to lobby in Washington for seven clients, including American Pioneer Title Insurance Co. and the United States Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform.
Martinez was president of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers in 1988-89.
Gallagher, the brother of Florida Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, is placing third in most polls, behind McCollum and Martinez, and is banking on voter inattentiveness by defining his two main opponents.
"We are battling Martinez. I make no bones about it," said Gallagher's main strategist, Richard Pinsky. "We are fighting for number two."
Gallagher's radio ad is on AM stations that carry the syndicated talk shows of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, popular with Republican voters.
GOP strategist Johnson said Hurricane Charley is forcing most campaigns to rethink their strategies, to avoid offending storm-ravaged voters with the wrong political message at the wrong time. "There's nothing in the campaign consultant's playbook on this one. You've got a disaster with far-reaching implications," Johnson said.