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The good of the GOP is good for McCollum


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 17, 2000

Bill McCollum may be the luckiest politician in Florida.

We'll know for sure in November.

Twenty-one years ago McCollum walked into my office in Pasco County to introduce himself. He was running for Congress, he told me -- against Richard Kelly, a former judge who was in an all-but-invincible position with the voters of Florida's old 5th Congressional District.

I laughed at him.

Three months later Kelly was in deep trouble, one of a handful of politicians caught up in Abscam, an FBI sting that targeted members of Congress with bribes offered in return for citizenship for rich Arabs.

Kelly's troubles didn't mean that McCollum was automatically in. First he had to get past a badly damaged Kelly and a crowded field of other Republicans who jumped into the race after smelling blood.

McCollum looked like an Eagle Scout half his age.

He still does.

He stood on street corners with a sign and waved at the voters driving by. He was one of the first to perfect what has now become a campaign tradition, attracting attention and name recognition without spending much money.

Now, McCollum is the biggest beneficiary of a political domino game that began when Senate President Toni Jennings decided to get out of the insurance commissioner's race.

At first it seemed that the other candidates in the insurance race would benefit the most, but that dream died Thursday when Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher jumped out of a heated Republican primary against McCollum and into the insurance race.

That leaves the GOP field clear for McCollum and lets him focus on a general election race against Bill Nelson.

The race between McCollum and Gallagher was turning into a nasty slugfest that was getting pretty bloody.

Enter Gov. Jeb Bush -- the big dog of the moment in Florida politics. Bush didn't want to see his party torn apart in the struggle. He knows firsthand what it is like to win a bitter primary and go crippled into a general election.

The GOP's top leadership also questioned the credentials of former Rep. Tim Ireland, a Fort Myers Republican who became the front-runner in the insurance race.

And so Bush and Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas put the screws to Gallagher to get him out of the Senate race and into the insurance race -- for the good of the party.

Everyone insists they didn't offer Gallagher "a carrot." But if he wins, Gallagher will be sitting in the perfect spot to run for the newly created post of chief financial officer in 2002.

The job was created in 1998 by voters who approved reducing the size of the Cabinet by combining the jobs of insurance commissioner and comptroller. The new, downsized Cabinet -- an attorney general, a chief financial officer and an agriculture commissioner -- is likely to become the breeding ground for future governors and U.S. senators.

That leaves future possibilities to Gallagher if he wins this year's insurance race.

First all of these guys will have to overcome the image of the back room deal that this whole game suggests.

Some think the deal may backfire, but I suspect the Republicans have anticipated certain fallout in this game of chess.

In the end, McCollum will be a stronger candidate with all the money and power of the party lined up behind him.

It is not likely to hurt other Republican candidates. They won't have to choose up sides in the Senate race or watch the bloody spectacle of one Republican carving up another.

And a fella named George W. Bush just might have an easier time taking the presidential vote in Florida.

A mere coincidence, I'm sure.

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