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Nelson launches bid for Senate

He also takes a few jabs at his expected opponent, U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum.

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 2, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Flanked by the Democratic Party's brightest stars, Bill Nelson stood Monday on the steps of the Old Capitol and left no doubt which Republican he expects to face in the U.S. Senate race.

Nelson, the state insurance commissioner and the presumptive Democratic nominee in the Senate race, took aim at U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Longwood. Without mentioning McCollum by name, he stressed that Florida needs a candidate who will rise above partisanship and Washington infighting.

"We've seen what happened to politics in America in the last few years, the politics of personal attacks, the politics of excessive partisanship and ideological intolerance," Nelson said with U.S. Sen. Bob Graham at his side. "Look at us; look at us as a nation."

McCollum, one of the more conservative members of Florida's delegation, is one of the most vocal critics of the Clinton administration and Attorney General Janet Reno. He was one of the House managers in President Clinton's impeachment trial.

After the speech, Nelson said he does not care whether he faces McCollum or state Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher in the general election. But he noted that polls indicate McCollum is even or slightly ahead of Gallagher in some Republican primary polls, and McCollum has three times as much money for his campaign.

Formal qualifying to appear on the ballot for the Senate seat and other congressional races starts next week.

Nelson called McCollum, whom he has known since high school, "an honorable fellow." But he said there are differences in their legislative records and indicated he would present himself as the mainstream candidate.

In his speech, Nelson emphasized traditional Democratic issues that ranged from preserving Social Security and Medicare to enhancing public education to protecting the environment. He called for a prescription-drug benefit for seniors and a patients' bill of rights that would require doctors, not accountants, to make health care decisions for health maintenance organizations.

McCollum agrees that he has significant differences with Nelson, campaign spokeswoman Shannon Gravitte said.

"Bill Nelson believes in more government, and Bill McCollum believes in more freedom," she said.

McCollum is the "rightful heir" to retiring conservative Republican Sen. Connie Mack, Gravitte said.

Joining Graham at Nelson's formal announcement were Democrats U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings of Fort Lauderdale, Attorney General Bob Butterworth and Rhea Chiles, widow of Gov. Lawton Chiles.

"Bill Nelson has a proven track record in Washington and Tallahassee as a person who does the hard work looking for solutions, not looking for arguments," Graham said.

Nelson, 57, is a former state legislator who spent a dozen years in Congress and flew on a space shuttle in 1986. He lost the Democratic nomination for governor to Chiles in 1990 and was first elected insurance commissioner in 1994.

Gallagher again on Monday tried to put to rest rumors that he would drop out of the race for the Senate, despite having more than $800,000 in his campaign account. He said Nelson would prefer to run against McCollum because the contrast between the two candidates would be sharper.

"We both have the ability to attract the middle that makes the decisions on Florida elections," Gallagher said of himself and Nelson.

What Gallagher doesn't have yet is a campaign song like Nelson's. The insurance commissioner's 23-year-old daughter, Nan Ellen, sang a song that she wrote at her father's announcement.

"Vote for Bill Nelson, he's on your side," she sang. "Come on everyone, elect Bill Nelson -- statewide."

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