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    They do the wave in modern politics

    By ADAM C. SMITH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 7, 2000


    photo
    [Times photo: Adam C. Smith]
    Republican Bill McCollum demonstrates one of his waves Friday in Tampa.
    TAMPA -- The man vying to be Florida's next senator is standing in the midst of roaring Dale Mabry traffic, seemingly talking to himself.

    "Morning. Morning. Hi fellas. Morning. Hi. Good morning. Hi there. Morning. How are you?"

    There is no possible way these drivers whizzing by can hear Republican U.S. Rep Bill McCollum cheerfully greeting them at conversation level. No matter. McCollum persists amid the fumes.

    "Hi there. Morning. Good to see you ... "

    In a $20-million statewide race, where state and national party leaders are working feverishly to raise soft money and campaign pros are consumed with TV buys, McCollum takes sign waving seriously. Very seriously.

    "I don't have the chance to do as much intersection reconnaissance as I used to," McCollum said 7:30 a.m. Friday, earnestly explaining his mild disappointment with the intersection of Dale Mabry and Kennedy in Tampa. Too many downtown-bound cars heading into the sun with limited visibility.

    Politicians today, especially local ones, often wave signs on street corners. But McCollum considers himself one of the earliest serious practitioners of the art, which is anachronistic to say the least in a campaign aiming to reach more than 8-million voters.

    In his first congressional race in 1980, he spent loads of time standing on U.S. 19 in north Pinellas and Pasco counties, an area that used to be in his district. He wistfully recalled the marvelous traffic-clogged intersection of Countryside Boulevard and U.S. 19, which has since been ruined for sign waving by an overpass.

    In his Dockers and blue shirt sleeves, McCollum showed off his precise roadside choreography during Tampa's Friday morning rush hour:

    The right hand holds high the blue and white "I need your vote" placard. The left hand is gracefully unpredictable. It shifts effortlessly from an open-palmed beauty pageant wave into a friendly, but firm karate chop. Then it glides into a one- or two-finger point. The decisive two-finger wag is employed most often, sometimes punctuated with a thumbs up or head nod. All the while McCollum continues his quiet, pleasant greetings.

    "It's the whole body language, not any one thing," McCollum explained, barely disguising his annoyance with a reporter cramping his style with questions. "But I tell you, the eyes speak a great deal. If you don't get eye contact, you don't connect."

    Jasmine Curz eyed the curiosity in the median.

    "Weird," she concluded. "But it's kind of cool too. Usually you only see their campaign workers, not the candidate. I like it. I might even vote for him."

    Remarkably, McCollum's chief opponent, Democratic Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson, has been waving signs on roadsides even longer. Nelson even politely suggested McCollum got the idea from him in the first place, something McCollum denies.

    Nelson recalled he and his wife waving signs in his first state legislative campaign in 1972. Fresh off their honeymoon, Grace Nelson wielded an enormous placard dotted with red hearts: "Vote for my husband Bill Nelson. You'll love him too."

    When he headed back to the roadsides for his 1978 congressional race, motorists loved it so much, Nelson said, that it fast became common political practice.

    These days, though, Nelson usually trolls for commuter votes only on election days or immediately after elections in order to say thanks. McCollum is the more committed sign waver.

    He insists that his dubious staff members regularly carve out sign-waving time, and earlier in the campaign he rejected the personal sign printed for him because the letters were inadequate. No matter how much his campaign handlers suggest his energy might be better spent off elsewhere, McCollum insists on median time.

    "The campaign professionals always say that the only thing that reaches anybody is television and print media. But I think word of mouth matters. People talk, and you've got to reach them. I can't tell you how many people tell me they've seen me (on the roadside). They appreciate it."

    His instincts seemed on target Friday morning. Most bemused motorists at least smiled back at him or waved. A few shouted or honked their approval.

    "I think it's great," Kevin Cox said from his Nissan. "It's nice to have politicians close to the people instead of being so distant where all you see of them is on TV."

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