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Gallagher drops bid for seat in Senate

After a push by Gov. Jeb Bush, Tom Gallagher decides to enter the race for state insurance commissioner.

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By TIM NICKENS and LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 15, 2000


Gov. Jeb Bush pushed and Tom Gallagher jumped.

Prodded by the governor and others, the Republican state education commissioner told supporters Wednesday he is dropping out of the U.S. Senate race and running for state insurance commissioner -- a job he has held before.

Gallagher will be joined by Bush and Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas when he makes the announcement at a news conference today in Tallahassee.

"That decision wasn't an easy one," Gallagher said during a late-afternoon conference call with dozens of supporters from across the state, "but it is one I am comfortable with."

Bush and Cardenas praised Gallagher during the telephone call for keeping the party's overall mission in mind.

"I consider this to be a win, win," the governor said, "and I really appreciate his willingness to take a step back and do something that required a little reflection."

With Gallagher out, the Senate race advances quickly to a general election contest between Republican U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum of Longwood and Democratic state Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson. McCollum and Nelson are the presumptive nominees of their respective parties, and the other nine candidates have little or no support.

The move also gives Republicans a strong candidate in the state insurance commissioner's race, which they lacked after Senate President Toni Jennings of Orlando dropped out last week.

In the Senate race, voters now are assured of stark contrasts.

Nelson, a former congressman who flew on a space shuttle, is a centrist Democrat who calls McCollum "right-wing" and out of touch with mainstream Florida.

McCollum, who has served in Congress for two decades but is seeking statewide office for the first time, is more conservative than Gallagher and helped present the House's case at President Clinton's impeachment trial. His campaign sent out a news release Wednesday calling Nelson "the Al Gore of Florida" and accusing the Democrat of changing positions on campaign finance reform.

"If you're looking at the contrasts of the candidates," Florida Democratic Party spokesman Tony Welch said, "there is a clearer contrast with McCollum than there would have been with Gallagher."

Florida Republicans said Wednesday that Gallagher's switch solves two problems for them.

First, they will avoid a divisive Senate Republican primary in September that would have drained the campaign accounts of both Gallagher and McCollum and left the victor bloodied and broke heading into the November general election against Nelson.

"We had a situation here in Florida that was challenging for us," Cardenas said during the conference call.

Second, Gallagher provides the Republicans with a tested, well-known candidate in the state insurance commissioner's race who will immediately become the favorite. He has previously run for governor twice, won races for insurance commissioner in 1988 and 1990 and was elected education commissioner in 1998. Gallagher resigned as education commissioner, effective in January, to run for the Senate.

The insurance commissioner's race is particularly important this year. The winner will be able to run as the favorite in 2002 for a new, more powerful Cabinet position approved by voters in 1998. The insurance commissioner and treasurer's post will be combined with the state comptroller's office to create a new chief financial officer.

"The governor's first priority is the state of Florida and the Cabinet," said Pat Roberts, a Tallahassee lobbyist and a longtime Gallagher supporter. "He may love his brother and he may love the Senate, but his first priority is the state and the Cabinet. When you put the team together we have now on the Cabinet, it will be very strong."

McCollum campaign aides would not talk about their suddenly cleared path to the Republican nomination, preferring to give Gallagher the spotlight for at least a day. The congressman had three times as much money as Gallagher, the backing of most of the state's Republican members of Congress and support from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

"Until Gallagher makes an announcement, we don't have anything to say," said Bill Coletti, the McCollum campaign's executive director.

Nelson's campaign, meanwhile, already was reaching out Wednesday night to moderate Republicans who supported Gallagher.

"Whether they have a primary or not, there is going to be a mean and negative attack on us that is going to go on all through the summer and the fall," Nelson campaign spokesman Dan McLaughlin said.

In the insurance commissioner's race, Gallagher's decision already has had an impact.

Despite raising $150,000 in only six days, Rep. Joe Arnall, R-Jacksonville, will end his brief campaign as Gallagher gets in the race.

"I will defer to Tom," Arnall said late Wednesday. "I got in the race because I felt you needed an experienced person in there to handle the complexities of running the department and melding it into the new CFO position. Now I can enjoy the summer."

Cardenas said during the conference call that he is hopeful the other Republican candidates in the Cabinet race will support Gallagher. The other Republicans in the race are Rep. Greg Gay of Cape Coral and Tim Ireland, a former legislator who is making his third run for insurance commissioner.

Ireland, whose past fundraising and campaign attacks have been criticized by Democrats and Republicans, indicated in a news release he intends to remain in the race.

The winner will face Democrat John Cosgrove, a Miami-Dade legislator who already was throwing campaign barbs Wednesday toward Gallagher.

"I'm the only candidate seeking this position who really wants to do this job," Cosgrove said. "I don't have to look in the political want ads to see where the party bosses want to move me."

Some insurance lobbyists already were preparing to hold fundraisers for Gallagher, who cannot transfer money from his U.S. Senate campaign to his new state race.

"I'm thrilled," said Mike Hightower, lobbyist for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida. "We are just waiting on a date. We don't have a whole lot of time."

Bush and Cardenas played the pivotal roles in persuading Gallagher to switch races.

Gallagher supporters said his money was coming in well for the quarter that ends June 30, and a new campaign poll indicated he and McCollum were close. At a Senate debate last Friday, Gallagher brushed off speculation fueled by McCollum aides that he would move to the insurance commissioner's race because Jennings had dropped out.

At the same time, Bush and Cardenas were shopping for another candidate for the insurance commissioner's race. House Speaker John Thrasher, a close friend of Bush's, was among those who wouldn't bite.

On Tuesday, Bush and Cardenas met with Gallagher, said Jamie Wilson, executive director of the Florida Republican Party.

Gallagher began calling supporters shortly afterward. By Wednesday morning, aides were alerting his supporters around the state to the conference call and asking Hightower and others to arrange fundraisers for the insurance commissioner's race.

"I think people will see this as a very positive step for our party," Bush said during the conference call. "We are the governing party of our state, and this will ensure that is extended."

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