Being known hasn't helped

Despite 10 terms in Congress, Bill McCollum isn't gaining traction against a state senator in the attorney general race.

Published September 24, 2006

In a little-watched statewide race, attorney general candidate Bill McCollum is in many ways running against himself.

So far, voters are split.

With 44 days until Election Day, McCollum is in a virtual tie against a relatively obscure Democrat, state Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, according to early polls.

Perhaps it's a sign of a larger trend of Democrats gaining momentum nationally. Perhaps it's a reflection on McCollum, a 10-term congressman and two-time candidate for U.S. Senate. Perhaps it's because no one's yet paying attention.

Or perhaps, as politics continues to devolve, being less known is becoming a good thing.

Bill McCollum: 'Tailor-made' for the job

Besides Charlie Crist, McCollum, 62, may be perhaps the best-known candidate running for a state Constitutional office.

He served 20 years in the U.S. House and came close to beating Sen. Bill Nelson in 2000. He helped lead a zealous prosecution of President Bill Clinton during his impeachment, and he was a terrorism policy wonk "before terrorism was cool," as Gov. Jeb Bush put it last week. McCollum has spent $17-million in the last six years telling voters about Bill McCollum.

His pedigree for the office is unmatched, Bush said. McCollum was the chairman of House subcommittee on crime, and founded the House task force on terrorism in 1989.

"He's tailor-made for this job," said Orange County Mayor Richard Crotty. "So many people have said, 'Bill ought to be attorney general, he'd be perfect.' "

"He's not a charmer," said John Evans, a longtime supporter who first met McCollum in Washington in 1991. "He's not one of those feel-good kind of guys. He's not exciting. But I can't imagine a better candidate for attorney general."

McCollum surprised many Republicans when he entered the race, and quickly dispatched four potential primary challengers.

He comes with an extensive political history - some of which may look more like baggage. He took campaign money from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and at least $12,000 from Enron executives before that company went bust.

McCollum now works as a lobbyist, something the Campbell campaign has worked into many of its campaign correspondences.

Bush, who helped McCollum raise $125,000 last week in Orlando, brushed off the notion McCollum was unethical.

"I know he has the integrity to do the right thing," Bush said.

Walter Campbell: 'I should win this thing'

Most Floridians are about as likely to know Walter Campbell the watercolor artist as they are Walter "Skip" Campbell, the Broward County state senator.

Campbell's internal polls say 26 percent of Floridians know who he is. And campaign manager Jeff Garcia admits probably half might be lying so they don't come off as political lightweights. "We ask people in Tampa for money. We don't know them," Garcia said. "We're meeting them for the first time."

Still, Campbell, a prominent trial lawyer and wealthiest member of the state Senate, is flying around on one of his airplanes, pounding podiums across Florida. In an August poll, he trailed McCollum by 1 point.

The governor has accused Campbell of grandstanding on insurance issues, and the Senate president's office has also chided Campbell for using his state Senate office to promote his attorney general campaign. Campbell keeps attacking.

"The polls I'm doing, show he's twice as well known as I am," said Campbell, 57. "But we're still even.

"If I communicate the message I'm trying to communicate, as to what my background is and who I am, my numbers propel like you can't believe. If I get my message out, I should win this thing," Campbell said.

McCollum may be better known, but Campbell has lined up some key institutional support. The state's two main police groups, the Florida Home Builders Association and a statewide firefighters group are all backing Campbell. Those same groups have all endorsed Charlie Crist for governor.

Republican and former Senate President John McKay also is supporting Campbell, whom he calls a friend.

"He wasn't always on my side in the Senate," McKay said. "But I have lots of respect for him."