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McCollum's campaign consultant is doing a great job, for Gallagher

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2000


Finally, a pulse.

The battle between state Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher and U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum for the Republican nomination in Florida's sleepy U.S. Senate race popped into public view last week. While the sniping over television ads is predictable, it signals the start of a three-month sprint to the Sept. 5 primary.

Expect a few more elbows, some tripping and a bloody nose or two.

This could be the toughest primary fight Florida has seen in a dozen years. The last one involved the same Senate seat and similar circumstances. Only the positions of the political parties are reversed.

In 1988, Lawton Chiles was retiring from the Senate after 18 years. A long line of fellow Democrats assembled. Buddy MacKay, then a congressman from Ocala, finished second to incumbent Insurance Commissioner Bill Gunter and forced a run-off.

MacKay attacked Gunter's fund-raising tactics and reminded voters about a 1986 FBI investigation into the insurance commissioner's job performance. He held weekly news conferences outside Gunter's Capitol office.

Gunter fired back, criticizing MacKay for voting in favor of freezing the cost-of-living adjustments in Social Security and in favor of selling arms to Saudi Arabia, which Israel opposed.

MacKay defeated Gunter in the run-off and faced a lightly regarded Republican congressman named Connie Mack. In an era when Republican wins were still considered aberrations in Florida, Mack upset MacKay in the state's closest statewide election.

Hit the fast-forward button.

Now it's Mack who is retiring from the Senate. The battle is on the Republican side between Gallagher and McCollum. Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson waits in the wings as the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Until now, most of the maneuvering has been aimed at raising money and organizing activists behind the scenes. McCollum has raised more than three times as much money, nearly $3.4-million to Gallagher's $1.1-million. The Longwood congressman also has been the more aggressive campaigner in the early going, although Gallagher has been picking up speed.

What has raised eyebrows is McCollum's attack-dog strategy.

He went on television first with a friendly, autobiographical ad aimed at introducing himself to voters. Gallagher's first ad underscored his overall strategy, displaying a grainy, black-and-white U.S. Capitol and portraying himself as a Floridian running against Washington values.

Gallagher's ad did not mention McCollum by name. It did refer to members of Congress who raised their pay while cutting Medicare, two positions endorsed by McCollum.

McCollum responded to this gentle slap with a hand grenade.

Without mentioning his own name, McCollum ripped Gallagher in a new ad for supporting a referendum on a sales tax increase for prisons, suggesting a new federal payroll tax to help pay for long-term care and airing a critical ad against Jeb Bush in the 1994 GOP primary for governor.

"Tom Gallagher. He's Slick. He's Sly. And he tried to raise his taxes," the McCollum ad says.

Interesting choice of words and tactics.

Calling Gallagher "slick" is a not-so-sly attempt to suggest he is like President Clinton, a.k.a. "Slick Willie." McCollum was one of the House managers in the president's impeachment trial.

This is not as direct as John McCain's comparison of George W. Bush to Clinton in the presidential primary, which backfired when Bush reacted with outrage. But it carries similar risks.

While hard-core Republicans likeliest to vote in the primary supported Clinton's impeachment, most Floridians did not. McCollum's efforts to win the primary could hurt him in the general election.

Second, the new McCollum attack ad reaffirms his campaign's efforts to portray Gallagher as a liberal. Good luck making that stick with Republicans who are more familiar with Gallagher, who has run five statewide races, than McCollum, who hasn't run any until now.

But this is cookie-cutter strategy for Arthur Finkelstein, McCollum's campaign consultant. Finkelstein is known nationwide for his slash-and-burn tactics, and his attempt to portray Gallagher as a liberal mirrors Finkelstein's approach in Massachusetts' Republican primary for governor two years ago. His client, former state treasurer Joseph D. Malone, tried to tar Paul Cellucci with the same liberal label.

It's Gov. Cellucci now.

Finkelstein also played a role in bringing Steven C. Roche to the McCollum campaign as its campaign finance director. Roche resigned last week after published reports linked him to a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigation in Massachusetts. Roche had been Malone's campaign finance chairman.

If these are the sorts of contributions Finkelstein is going to make to McCollum's campaign, Gallagher should continue to express public outrage -- and quietly send over a thank-you note.

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