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    Elder Bush lends name to bolster McCollum

    The ex-president recalls old times with the congressman, praising his character.

    By ADAM C. SMITH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 23, 2000


    MIAMI -- Former President George Bush threw his weight behind Bill McCollum's Senate campaign Friday, invoking the importance of character in Washington.

    It was the biggest campaign event to date for McCollum, attracting more than 300 adoring supporters of President Bush and raising more than $700,000 for McCollum and the Florida GOP.

    In light, sentimental remarks that touched on old times with McCollum, longtime South Florida friends and being overshadowed lately by his "hunk" grandson, George P., the Bush family patriarch elevated McCollum in a part of the state largely unfamiliar with the Orlando-area Republican.

    "I'm not in the issues business anymore," Bush said. "But I'm in the character business, and I know a man of character when I see one. I saw him take a lot of heat (as an impeachment leader) a few months ago in the House. Held his head up high and did what he felt was right. Whether you agree or not -- and I 100 percent agree -- I think people respect somebody who stands for principles."

    McCollum is a 10-term congressman who goes way back with Bush, often visiting the White House with other House Republicans and talking to Bush about issues such as crime and terrorism.

    He called Bush "one of the greatest presidents in the history of the United States."

    After McCollum introduced and kissed his wife, Ingrid, Bush ribbed them for not having the "endurance" of Al and Tipper Gore. He recounted how he and his wife, Barbara, recently posed for a picture while doing a Gore kiss outside their home in Kennebunkport, Maine.

    "Some guy across the bay yelled, "Get a room, will you!' "

    President Bush's appearance highlighted the priority both parties are placing on the contest between McCollum and Democratic Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson to succeed Republican Connie Mack. On Sunday, New York Gov. George Pataki is scheduled to campaign with McCollum in Pompano Beach, and next month Elizabeth Dole is to help raise money for him. President Clinton has come to Florida on Nelson's behalf.

    McCollum offered his standard platform speech, which mirrors that of George W. Bush. He calls for reducing taxes, building back up the military, and strengthening Social Security by letting younger citizens invest a small portion of their payroll taxes.

    For the Miami audience, McCollum also stressed the need for improving trade relations with Latin American countries, but pushed barring any trade whatsoever with Castro's Cuba.

    McCollum has repeatedly criticized Nelson for helping raise "soft money" -- unrestricted donations to political parties -- but he made no apologies for doing the same Friday; he has to compete, he said.

    Friday's event mixed $20,000 corporate contributions to the party and individual "hard money" contributions to McCollum. Organizers could not provide a breakdown of the money raised. Statewide polls consistently have shown McCollum trailing Nelson.

    But Florida Republican Party chairman Al Cardenas said a new internal statewide poll showed McCollum now leading Nelson by 2 percentage points.

    South Florida poses one of the biggest challenges to McCollum, who is running his first campaign beyond his Central Florida district.

    The last independent statewide poll, by Mason-Dixon, found him trailing Nelson by 8 percentage points statewide and by nearly a 2-1 ratio in South Florida.

    Among the party faithful gathered at the Wyndham Miami on Friday, few people said they knew much about McCollum or knew of people excited by his candidacy.

    "Tom Gallagher would have been a better candidate, because he's better recognized down here. Bill McCollum just is not well known," said Venny Torre, a 39-year-old general contractor.

    Gallagher is the state's Republican education commissioner who had been running for the Senate until party leaders persuaded him to run for insurance commissioner instead.

    State Rep. Rudy Garcia, R-Hialeah, said bringing out heavyweights such as President Bush is what McCollum needs to do.

    "I'm a little concerned," Garcia said of the race. "I just hope (McCollum) can start waking (voters) up, because he's got only 46 days to do it. The numbers have been pretty far apart, and people like Bill Nelson."

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