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Clinton stars in fundraiser today

The president's visit could raise $1-million for state Democratic candidates like Bill Nelson.

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000


Like many fellow Democrats, U.S. Senate candidate Bill Nelson says he strongly disapproves of President Clinton for lying and covering up his extramarital affair with a White House intern.

But his disapproval won't keep Nelson from sharing the stage with Clinton today in Tampa and Palm Beach, where the impeached president is expected to raise $1-million for Nelson and other Democratic Senate candidates.

As Democrats in several states attempt to recapture the Senate majority, Nelson is not alone in embracing Clinton's fundraising prowess while frowning on his indiscretions. Yet the alliance draws particular notice in Florida, where Nelson's Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, was among House managers who pushed to oust Clinton from office.

Nelson, who says he would have voted "like (U.S. Sen.) Bob Graham" to acquit Clinton on the impeachment charges, doesn't see the alliance as a liability.

"Clearly, I don't approve of some of his personal behavior. I don't approve of it and the American people don't approve of it. When you get beyond that, he's been a very successful president," said Nelson, who said he has known Clinton since the late 1980s.

Clinton arrives this morning in Tampa, where he will speak at a private, $1,000-per-plate luncheon at the Hyatt Regency Westshore to benefit Nelson and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

At about the same time Nelson and Clinton appear at the Tampa luncheon, McCollum will address the opening day of the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

McCollum, of Longwood, hasn't highlighted his impeachment role on the campaign trail, though he has mentioned it in fundraising letters that said he was "trying to protect the integrity of the Constitution and the nation" as one of 13 House managers in Clinton's 1999 impeachment trial.

Clinton was not removed from office, and in the months since, his job approval ratings have remained high, buoyed in part by the strong economy. McCollum is less inclined to talk about his role in the proceedings.

"I'm not hiding from it all, but I believe the voters of Florida want to decide this election on the basis of issues," McCollum said last week. "The impeachment trial was a role I played to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law. I'm proud of it. I think I was right. The president committed the crimes that he was charged with, and I think he should have been removed from office. In no way do I retreat from that."

Last week, McCollum instead chose to focus on the reason Clinton is here: the money.

In a letter to his Democratic rival, McCollum suggested Nelson was raising funds by improper and dishonorable means.

". . . admit your fundraising scheme is a mistake," McCollum wrote to Nelson, "and ask the President to stay home . . .

"Your actions are an embarrassment," McCollum said in a second letter.

After leaving Tampa today, Clinton and Nelson will fly on Air Force One to Palm Beach for another $1,000-per-plate event at the Colony Hotel. Bob Graham, still under consideration to be Al Gore's running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket, also will speak at the event. After the reception, a dinner at a Democratic donor's home is expected to raise $650,000.

All three events combined should raise about $1.15-million for "Florida 2000," a controversial joint-fundraising committee established by Nelson and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Under the agreement, Nelson receives the first $2,000 of each donation to Florida 2000, but only if the donor hasn't already given that amount to Nelson's own campaign fund. Campaign committee officials say they will use the remainder to support any Senate candidates who need the help, but it is likely much of the funds will directly aid Nelson. Since September, Florida 2000 has collected $657,000, said David DiMartino, a Florida 2000 spokesman.

Critics such as Common Cause, a non-partisan campaign finance reform group, say such agreements are designed to evade the $2,000 limit on individual donations to federal campaigns. By contributing to Florida 2000, for example, donors can give far more than that to boost Nelson's Senate run.

For example, Tampa attorney Chris Hoyer -- a co-host of the Tampa luncheon -- has contributed $2,000 to Nelson's campaign. He also has written a $20,000 check to Florida 2000.

"Obviously, there's only one Senate race in Florida in the year 2000. At some point, these committees don't pass the giggle test," said Jeff Cronin, a spokesman for Common Cause.

At least a dozen candidates -- Republicans and Democrats -- have similar arrangements with both parties' national senatorial campaign committees, from Democrat Hillary Clinton in New York to Republican Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri.

McCollum does not have a joint-fundraising agreement similar to Florida 2000, though he will benefit from donations made directly to Republican national committees. Donations to Republican candidates who do have joint fund-raising agreements also could end up in McCollum's coffers, especially if his race with Nelson is close.

McCollum and Nelson traded accusatory letters last week, each claiming the other is a hypocrite for accepting "soft money" -- unlimited contributions -- from political committees.

Nelson, who has said he supports a ban on "soft money," said he pushed the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to require public disclosure of Florida 2000 donors. McCollum attempted to link Nelson's methods with Gore's alleged role in the illegal fundraising activities of the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign.

The latest federal financial disclosure reports showed Nelson, the current state insurance commissioner, with $3.3-million in the bank, compared with $2.4-million for McCollum.

Both sides agree they will need thousands, if not millions, more. And Clinton, even his GOP critics concede, is a magnet for political money.

In past years, though, some Democrats have been reluctant to appear alongside the president. In 1994, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles declined a chance to appear with Clinton during Chiles' tough re-election race. In 1998, Lt. Gov. candidate Rick Dantzler avoided an event with Clinton that took place the day independent counsel Kenneth Starr released his report on Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

Dantzler, a former Democratic state senator from Winter Haven, said he could not bring himself to share the stage with Clinton and also face his two daughters, then ages 8 and 11. This time, Dantzler won't make it either, but he said he doubts Nelson will pay a political price for appearing with Clinton.

"It will help Bill (Nelson) more than it will hurt him, but I'm not going to be there," Dantzler said.

A majority of Floridians, and Americans, opposed impeachment, said Jim Kane, director of the non-partisan Florida Voter Poll. Clinton's job approval rating now hovers around 52 percent, down from more than 60 percent at the height of impeachment fever, Kane said.

"Anyone who dislikes Bill Clinton so much that anybody that got on the same stage with him, they wouldn't vote for him, isn't going to vote for Bill Nelson anyway," Kane said.

Last week, Nelson characterized his relationship with Clinton as "professionally respectful," but not close. They met in the late 1980s at Renaissance Weekend, an annual, private retreat for politicians, business executives and their families in Hilton Head, S.C.

Clinton then was governor of Arkansas. Chelsea Clinton and Nelson's daughter, Nan Ellen, now 23, became friends.

"There's always a risk," said Nelson, about criticism that may follow his appearance with Clinton. "I think most people have said what's done is done. Let's move on."

-- Times staff writer Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.

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