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Clinton shadow looms at debate

GOP Senate candidate Bill McCollum lumps his Democratic opponent with the administration.

By ADAM C. SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 13, 2000


LAKE BUENA VISTA -- Bill McCollum is no longer running mainly against Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson for U.S. Senate.

The Republican congressman from Longwood made it clear at a debate Saturday that he's just as avidly running against Bill Clinton and Al Gore. McCollum is working hard to associate Nelson with the Clinton-Gore administration, questioning Nelson's sincerity and consistency on key issues and lumping them together as some sort of Democratic triumvirate.

"Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Bill Nelson believe in more government, more rules and more regulations," McCollum told members of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored a Senate debate at Disney World.

Immediately after the forum, the McCollum campaign accused Nelson of using "Clinton-Gore scare tactics" by suggesting that allowing citizens to invest some of their payroll tax dollars could jeopardize Social Security benefits.

The anti-Clinton McCollum strategy could be risky for a candidate who lately has been trying to de-emphasize his leading role in the Clinton impeachment. Clinton won Florida four years ago, and polls indicated little public support for the impeachment.

Still, much like George W. Bush wants to capitalize on Clinton fatigue, McCollum is highlighting inconsistent positions by Nelson and implying that a vote for Nelson is like a vote for Clinton.

"He is a flip-flopper just like Bill Clinton and Al Gore. People after eight years are tired of this style, this rhetoric, this flip-flopping," said state GOP Chairman Al Cardenas. "If (voters) can't think about Bill Nelson without thinking about Bill Clinton and Al Gore, we'll win this race."

Nelson, who spent 12 years in Congress representing a district that overwhelmingly backed Ronald Reagan, shrugged off the McCollum strategy, saying voters know him for his record, not party identification.

"When it comes down to the bottom line of consistency, the people of Florida know me, they can trust me, they can depend on me," Nelson said. "They've seen me as insurance commissioner stand up and fight for them against the special interests. That's the sort of consistency people are looking for."

The mostly civil debate Saturday among McCollum, Nelson and independent candidate Willie Logan offered both of the major candidates a chance to accuse the other of flip-flops. But it also highlighted just how similar their basic platforms are.

On most questions from the audience, from continuing the trade embargo against Cuba to barring sales tax on Internet commerce, the two candidates agreed.

Both talked up the need for Florida to get its fair share of federal dollars and to get more local control over federal spending. Both want to use the projected federal budget surplus to shore up Social Security and Medicare, to build up the defense, and to cut taxes.

Nelson said he supports Republican efforts to cut estate taxes and "marriage penalty" taxes, which prompted McCollum to note Nelson had changed his stance on the estate tax. At a forum in May, Nelson that while he would like to see the tax eliminated, it would be too costly, and strengthening Social Security and Medicare are more important.

Nelson said after the debate that his position shifted because projections for the budget surplus had grown.

And when McCollum said he supported giving consumers a "limited" right to sue health maintenance organizations for punitive damages, Nelson accused him of shifting his previous opposition to such lawsuits.

The sharpest disagreement came over whether to allow people to privately invest some of their Social Security money in the stock market. McCollum supports such "conservative" investment options, but Nelson said the "inevitable result" of taking money out of the Social Security trust fund for private investment is a cut in Social Security benefits.

Nelson asked, "What happens if the stock market goes south?" He questioned what retirement supplement would then exist for seniors with limited incomes.

Logan jumped on the issue: "As a member of the State Board of Administration, Mr. Nelson, you sit over the invested retirement funds of hundreds of millions of dollars of Floridians, billions of dollars, and the fact of the matter is we invest those dollars in the stock market."

Nelson later said the investment of those state retirement funds is tightly restricted and controlled, and isn't comparable to what Republicans propose for Social Security.

Logan, who is lagging far behind Nelson and McCollum in opinion polls, cast himself as the only candidate who can be counted on to stand up for Floridians, rather than parties or special interests.

Reform Party candidate Joel Deckard had been expected at the debate, but he was busy at his own party convention.

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