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    Democrats' ad draws upon Nelson's office

    Bill Nelson's campaign was not involved with the party-produced ad, says a campaign spokesman.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 14, 2000

    Bill Nelson has made a point of avoiding any appearance that his U.S. Senate campaign is intermingling with his Insurance Commissioner's Office. Reporters with campaign questions can't even talk to him in his state office.

    But now the Florida Democratic Party is cracking that wall of separation with a television spot attacking his opponent's record on prescription drug benefits. Touting Nelson's position, it urges people to call Nelson's government office and voice their support for his stance.

    "Call Bill Nelson to keep fighting for Florida Seniors," the spot says, flashing his office number on the screen.

    Nelson's campaign spokesman, Dan McLaughlin, said the campaign had nothing to do with that party-produced ad. "My first reaction is, "What? . . . That doesn't seem right,' " McLaughlin said when told of the phone number. He said the campaign would like the number changed, but he was told it had no legal authority to dictate ad content to the party.

    A party spokesman defended the number Tuesday, while also touting a new statewide poll showing that Nelson has essentially maintained his lead in the Senate race against Republican U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum.

    According to both campaigns, the Mason-Dixon poll showed 44 percent of voters support Nelson, and 36 percent back McCollum. Since June, despite aggressive campaigning by McCollum, Nelson's lead only dropped from 9 percent to 8 percent.

    The Democratic Party is spending more than $500,000 to air the prescription drugs spot throughout Florida, including the Tampa Bay area. Party spokesman Tony Welch insisted it was an "issue ad" rather than a campaign ad. Including the insurance commissioner's state number was perfectly appropriate, he said.

    McCollum disagreed.

    "That's highly improper," he said by phone from Washington. "If you're going to (solicit calls to) Bill Nelson in a political ad like that, then it ought to be to call the political office. Mixing your campaign with your government office is wrong."

    A Department of Insurance spokeswoman knew of only one person who had called the office in response to the ad. An elderly woman called to disagree with Nelson's position that Medicare be expanded to include a prescription drug benefit.

    The commercial is an example of how unregulated "soft money" can be used to skirt campaign finance restrictions imposed on candidates. Parties can accept unlimited individual contributions for "party building" and "issue" advocacy.

    So in the midst of a heated Senate race, Florida Democrats ran an "issue ad" attacking Bill McCollum and praising Bill Nelson.

    "If it were a campaign ad, we would have used a different number, but this is not a political ad. It's an issue ad," Welch insisted.

    Virtually the same issue arose in the Nevada Senate race recently over a Republican Party issue ad that urged citizens to call Attorney General Don Stenberg's government office. Stenberg, the GOP Senate candidate, said it was wrong to use that number but that he was powerless to force his party to change it.

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    Lucy Morgan

    From the Times state desk