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    Panhandle is friendly to Nelson

    The Senate candidate seems to be more familiar to folks than "the other fella'' running.

    By SHELBY OPPEL

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 28, 2000


    PANAMA CITY, Fla. -- Willard Coram knows breakfast, just as he knows the paper mill workers who like their scrambled eggs with crinkle-cut fries at Corams' Steak and Egg on U.S. 98.

    Coram is just as sure about which presidential candidate he -- and most of his customers -- will vote for Nov. 7.

    "It won't be a Democrat," says Coram, 62.

    But neither Coram's distaste for Vice President Al Gore -- "a junior Bill Clinton," he calls him -- nor his Republican leanings will keep him from marking the ballot for the Democrat in Florida's other high-stakes federal race: the battle for the state's open Senate seat.

    Democrat Bill Nelson, the state insurance commissioner, "has always kind of tried to look after the working man, and that's what I am," Coram said.

    "He's a good North Florida man, my type of person. And he's got a pretty wife."

    In the Panhandle, Bill Nelson is counting on the personal as much as the political.

    If recent history holds, most people here will vote for GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush over Gore. The territory west of Tallahassee to the Alabama line is full of registered Democrats known to abandon party loyalty if a more like-minded Republican comes along.

    Those voters might do just that for GOP Senate candidate Bill McCollum -- if only they knew more about him. They do know Nelson, who has family ties to the Panhandle and has run in three statewide elections in the past 10 years.

    Nelson's task is to ever so slightly distance himself from Gore and Clinton, without sounding too impolite about it.

    "Don't let my opponents tag me with silly labels like "liberal,' " he told a group in tiny Bonifay this week, "or let them associate me with other people."

    "Other people," he acknowledged later, meant "Clinton."

    "My first name is Bill. My last name is Nelson, not Clinton," he said in an interview. "They know Bill Nelson. They may not like Clinton, but that's not going to rub off on me."

    During Nelson's campaign swing this week through the central Panhandle, plenty of folks such as Coram seemed to buy Nelson's pitch that he is one of them.

    It's not an easy sell. Born in Miami and raised 400 miles from the Panhandle in Melbourne, on the eastern coast, Nelson is a wealthy, Yale-educated lawyer who even flew into space on a 1986 space shuttle voyage.

    But Nelson's mother -- the late Nanny Myrle Nelson -- grew up in Washington County, where her great-grandfather arrived from Denmark in 1829. On Monday, Nelson brought his Uncle Farrell -- Nanny Myrle's brother -- and Aunt Caribel to a campaign rally in adjacent Holmes County.

    "My father was a Nelson and my mother was, too," Nelson said, building up to his oft-used punch line.

    "I guess that makes me a full Nelson."

    In Holmes County, the line generates an appreciative laugh. To the south, in Bay County, Nelson's roots are less important to Todd Walker, the red-bearded, green-eyed union president at Arizona Chemical Co. outside Panama City.

    It is Nelson's sympathy for union concerns, along with his "personable" manner, that has won Walker's vote.

    "There are a lot of moral questions you've got to make (as an elected official), and those are important up here," said Walker, 33.

    Yet on social issues such as gun control and abortion rights, both of which Walker opposes, Walker sounds more in line with Nelson's opponent, McCollum.

    Both Nelson and McCollum oppose gun licensing and registration. But Nelson supports an assault weapons ban and says he would have voted for the Brady Bill requiring background checks and waiting periods for handgun purchases, measures that McCollum rejected in Congress.

    And while McCollum opposes abortion unless a mother's life is in danger, Nelson defends a woman's right to have the procedure without government interference.

    Yet, when asked about McCollum, Walker echoed James Parmer, a paper mill worker who asked Nelson during a 7 a.m. shift change Monday to help put Jesus Christ back in the public schools.

    "McCollum?" asked Parmer, 50. "Don't know him."

    (Nelson told Parmer that religion is "an individual choice," adding that he would conduct himself as a senator in a way "you'd be proud of.")

    Nelson's trip this week also dipped into Gadsden County -- just west of Tallahassee. The detour was more than geographical.

    In Gadsden, Florida's only majority-black county, Nelson told African-American church congregations how, as state insurance commissioner, he helped negotiate a $206-million settlement against a life insurance giant that cheated black customers. In a priceless stroke of political luck, a federal judge's recent approval of the settlement means refund checks should arrive in voters' mailboxes in mid-October, three weeks before the election.

    The money aside, it didn't sound as if Nelson needs to worry about losing votes to McCollum among the red-upholstered pews of Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church in Quincy.

    "We don't want folk like Bill McCollum, and forgive me for even saying his name," said Edward Dixon, a Democrat who sits on the Gadsden County Commission, to a nodding Sunday crowd.

    "He is with the Republican Party, and we know they're all show and no tell."

    If the Gadsden County vote seems locked up for Nelson, the rest of northwest Florida won't be so easy. McCollum's strategy of linking Nelson to the moral foibles of the Clinton administration could take hold as the candidates amplify their television campaigns in the weeks ahead.

    Take Joey and Felecia Fisanick, for example, registered Democrats who live in Bonifay, the Holmes County seat.

    After hearing Nelson speak in her town, Mrs. Fisanick, 33, said she likes his plans for preserving Social Security and adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. But she isn't ready to give him her vote.

    "Parties change so quick in what they believe and what they stand for. I try to look at the man," added her husband, a gunsmith and plumber who is running for the school board.

    "(Nelson) sounds pretty good, but I haven't really heard anything out of the other fella."

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