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Senate GOP primary decided, but not by voters

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© St. Petersburg Times, published June 18, 2000

If you blinked, you missed it.

Republicans decided their Senate primary the other day. It took place in the governor's office, which most certainly is not a smoke-filled back room.

The governor doesn't smoke.

Now the rest of Florida's 3.3-million Republicans can relax. The decision to nominate Bill McCollum over Tom Gallagher has been made for them. They don't have to worry about choosing between them as they hustle the kids off to school and rush off to work on the day after Labor Day.

How convenient.

Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas insist it is for the best. Maybe they're right.

McCollum, a congressman from Longwood, and Gallagher, the state education commissioner, would have spent the summer slicing each other up in television ads. They would have spent a ton of money. The battered winner would have faced a fresh, well-financed Democrat, Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson.

But what we have here is the death of the high-profile primary election. It's been endangered for years, and this signals the end.

Oh, they used to be magnificent contests. They usually involved Democrats back when Democrats ran the state. Have your grandparents tell you about the 1970 primaries that propelled Lawton Chiles to the U.S. Senate and Reubin Askew to the Governor's Mansion. Think Jim Smith and Steve Pajcic in the 1986 Democratic primary for governor. Or Bill Gunter and Buddy MacKay in the 1988 Democratic primary for Senate.

Republicans remember.

That's why they don't like competitive primaries as their party matures. The Democratic slugfests were great for voters but often bad for the winners. Pajcic and MacKay lost their general elections.

Former Republican Party Chairman Tom Slade and his successor, Al Cardenas, have cleared the primary paths for anointed candidates like motorcycle cops leading a parade. Cardenas said last week that primaries can be healthy in legislative races where the candidates are untested. It's another story in a statewide race where the competitors are well-known.

"In the case of Bill McCollum and Tom Gallagher," Cardenas said, "neither had anything to prove to anyone. They have both been in public office for 20 years. Everybody knows their philosophy."

And now Republicans won't be able to choose between the conservative McCollum and the more moderate Gallagher. Chalk it up to muscle-flexing by Bush and Cardenas.

Eleven days ago, Senate President Toni Jennings of Orlando dropped out of the insurance commissioner's race. Bush was not her biggest fan, but it left the Republicans without a strong candidate in a critical spot.

Cardenas went shopping. He tested a few other names, but quickly came back to Gallagher. He had seen McCollum's television ad attacking Gallagher. He knew the fight would get nastier and that McCollum had more money and more support from Washington.

Nine days ago, Gallagher laughed off suggestions by McCollum aides that he would switch races. He participated in a debate. But by then, Bush and Cardenas already had talked about the Republican lineup.

Last weekend, Cardenas broached the idea with Gallagher in a couple of telephone conversations.

Monday night, the GOP chairman called Gallagher's campaign headquarters. The pair ate dinner together at Anthony's in Tallahassee and talked some more.

McCollum's campaign aides heard about the dinner and knew something was up. Tuesday morning, they received a call from state party officials saying Gallagher might be out and to stand by.

Cardenas went to the Capitol and talked to Gallagher some more. Late Tuesday afternoon, they agreed to go see Bush in the governor's office.

In Orlando, McCollum aides gathered in a conference room to await the outcome. In Tallahassee, Bush, Cardenas and Gallagher met for about 15 minutes. Soon afterward, GOP officials called McCollum headquarters to announce the deal was all but done.

Wednesday morning, Gallagher had breakfast with his campaign manager and told him they were switching races. He called McCollum before noon. The new friends agreed to endorse each other and help each other raise money.

By then, the word was out.

Gallagher's campaign invited hundreds of supporters to listen in on a late-afternoon conference call. Campaign manager Marty Ryall, eager to avoid reporters, and another staffer went to an afternoon movie: Mission: Impossible 2.

Maybe it's for the best.

Gallagher could have been very competitive with McCollum, and the primary could have provided a good reading on the state of the Florida Republican Party. But Gallagher would have been ripped to shreds by McCollum's attack-ads. A low-turnout primary dominated by the GOP's most conservative voters would have assured a McCollum victory.

This way, Gallagher stands to remain a viable force. He is tighter than ever with Bush, which will pay off later. Meanwhile, McCollum will be rested and well-prepared to face Nelson in an interesting Senate race.

Everybody wins.

Except the 3.3-million Republicans who don't get a chance to choose their party's Senate candidate.

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