By CURTIS KRUEGER and STEVE BOUSQUET
Published August 26, 2004
ORLANDO - The harsh words flying in the U.S. Senate Republican primary continued Wednesday as former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack defended Bill McCollum, calling attacks by rival Mel Martinez "mean-spirited, desperate and personal."
"This kind of political hate speech can only hurt our party and doom us in November," said Mack, chairman of McCollum's campaign, in a letter to 15,000 party activists in Florida.
The letter came a day after a group of social conservatives, gathered by Martinez, called McCollum untrustworthy and "anti-family" because he supports expanded embryonic stem cell research and hate crime provisions to protect gays and lesbians.
McCollum's critics included former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, the Traditional Values Coalition and the National Right to Life PAC. Martinez did not participate in the conference call.
"It seems like the Martinez campaign is acting really desperate," McCollum said Wednesday. At a fundraiser in Tampa Tuesday night, McCollum said Martinez "has a lot of money and he's really spending it. . . . He began attacking me today, which is really interesting, because that just shows when you're behind, you attack."
The intensity of Mack's criticism further complicates the GOP's ability to project a unified front after Tuesday's primary.
Mack, who served two terms in the Senate, remains popular with many Florida conservatives. He shares McCollum's support for stem cell research, and his statement was a no-holds-barred condemnation of Martinez's campaign.
"I have never seen such a mean-spirited, desperate and personal attack. I was embarrassed for Mel and by Mel," Mack said.
The conservative activists who criticized McCollum said he has retreated from bedrock conservative stands.
McCollum was the GOP's Senate nominee in 2000 but lost to Democrat Bill Nelson. Some Republicans said McCollum was seen as too conservative to win a general election, while Martinez is considered a moderate alternative.
Yet McCollum and Martinez are locked in a fierce battle for social conservatives, a vital bloc in Tuesday's Republican primary.
"Isn't that ironic?" McCollum said Wednesday. "It's very interesting to see him try to run to my right."
Both men campaigned in Orlando on Wednesday.
McCollum stuck to his theme of experience as a 20-year member of Congress, including serving as chairman of a House task force on terrorism and as a Navy officer both on active duty and in the Reserves. He had lunch with leaders of the state Fraternal Order of Police and toured a cancer facility.
Martinez campaigned with Hispanics at a Cuban restaurant, Habana Joe's, where he forecast a close election Tuesday. Alternating between English and Spanish, he framed his candidacy as a historic opportunity for Hispanics to have a voice in the U.S. Senate.
"We're going to prove that I can get through a Republican primary with a last name that ends in a "Z,' " Martinez told the crowd.
A third Republican, Doug Gallagher, toured early-voting locations in Central Florida Wednesday and pumped another $670,000 of his own money into the campaign, bringing his total investment to $6.6-million, much of it spent on TV and radio ads. Gallagher's new ad, airing today, takes aim at Martinez, calling him "a slip-and-fall trial lawyer."
Gallagher, calling Martinez's attacks on McCollum "unconscionable," will pull all of his ads attacking the former congressman and train his fire solely on Martinez.