By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
The long-shot Republican Senate candidate says he shares the values, if not the party, of the late governor.
TAMPA - The question often comes up when people hear the son of one of Florida's most iconic Democratic governors, LeRoy Collins, is running for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination.
LeRoy Collins Jr. is a Republican? The namesake of one of the South's earliest civil rights champions who wound up cast as too liberal to be politically viable?
Yep, for almost two decades. And Dad was none too pleased about his son's switch of parties. Word quickly got back to the former governor.
"That phone just about melted in my hand. He really, really gave me hell," recounted a chuckling Collins, a military man who deeply admired Ronald Reagan. "The Democratic Party was kind of going off and leaving me. I told Dad that, and he said, 'I'd rather stay in there and fight to fix it.' That's the way he was."
Nearly 20 years later, Collins, now 71, is out to fix Washington and what he says is an inadequate focus on protecting America from terrorists. The retired two-star Navy admiral gives President Bush "an A-plus for courage and leadership" in pursuing the war in Iraq, but frets that Washington leaders are taking their eye off the ball when it comes to homeland security.
"I saw that five years have elapsed since 9/11 and we still don't even have much border security," Collins said in a recent interview. "There are millions of people out there, Islamic fundamentalists, that want us dead. ... I just feel down in my bones that our survival's at stake, and I'm the only candidate out there that has a military background."
The official campaign slogan: "A serious candidate for critical times."
But by some accounts it could be: A naive underdog in a long-shot campaign.
The name of Florida's governor from 1955-61 doesn't mean much to most voters these days. Collins says he hasn't raised much money, and he's trying to wrest the Republican nomination from U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, a worldwide celebrity.
The winner of the Sept. 5 primary goes on to face Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson in November.
"My father, LeRoy Collins, the 33rd governor of the great state of Florida, once took on a seemingly impossible challenge; peacefully bringing the civil rights movement here to Florida," Collins said Thursday, formally kicking off his campaign at his daughter's house in South Tampa.
"With his spirit at my side and with the support of my family, I take on my challenge. I will defy my critics and I will do the seemingly impossible."
Also in the primary are Peter Monroe, a developer from Safety Harbor; and Will McBride, an Orlando lawyer. Some Republican insiders see McBride as the biggest threat to Harris, because his in-laws are wealthy and he potentially could spend millions of his own money on the race.
But Collins insists that ideas and background can and should trump money. He's a no-nonsense candidate who doesn't necessarily embrace Republican orthodoxy.
He doesn't want to make abortion illegal, for instance, and he would relax the Cuba embargo, conditioned on human rights and property rights concessions. His platform includes starting a national internship program for state and federal agencies to encourage more public service.
If nothing else, Collins looks thoroughly senatorial - a lanky 6 feet 3, with bright white hair and chiseled features. He rows 6 to 8 miles every other day and on off days swims 1,000 yards. His waist size, 35, is the same as when he graduated from the Naval Academy.
He acknowledges that most politicos with whom he discussed running were less than encouraging. Tampa developer Al Austin, state GOP finance chairman, urged against it.
"He said, 'Roy, you're almost as old as I am. You shouldn't do that. It's hard work.' I said, 'Well Al, I'm in better shape than you.' "
Gov. Collins died in 1991, and former first lady Mary Call Collins lives next to the governor's office, where Jeb Bush regularly checks in on her.
One last question for junior: Would his father be a Democrat today?
"I've thought about that many times. I think he'd still be a Democrat because if you didn't like what a party was doing you should do your best to change it," Collins Jr. said. "But I think his ideology is closer to where the Republicans are."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or firstname.lastname@example.org.