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    Accusations fly as tempers rise in Senate debate

    By ADAM C. SMITH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 13, 2000


    DELRAY BEACH -- In their testiest face-to-face encounter yet, U.S. Senate candidates Bill McCollum and Bill Nelson repeatedly accused one another of lying and hiding from their records Thursday.

    The public television debate turned especially heated when Nelson accused McCollum of voting in Congress to cut Medicare and McCollum tied Nelson to dramatic rate increases while insurance commissioner. At times, independent candidate Willie Logan looked like he ought to duck to avoid the verbal missiles flying from either side of him.

    "You can't hide from the facts. Facts are facts," McCollum told Nelson at one point, after Nelson angrily defended his six-year record as insurance commissioner.

    "You played a lot of politics as insurance commissioner with this issue, and you've gotten away with it until now," McCollum said.

    Nelson said McCollum's "friends" in the state Legislature are largely responsible for "sticking it to consumers." Nelson said they created an arbitration panel in 1996 that nine times has overturned the commissioner's rejection of proposed rate increases.

    The debate, part of which will be televised at 8 p.m. Sunday on WEDU, reflected the increasing antagonism in the nationally watched race to succeed Connie Mack in the Senate. For weeks, McCollum, the Republican nominee, and Nelson, the Democrats' candidate, have been attacking each other on television, but this was the first truly feisty debate.

    Sticking to their campaign themes, McCollum portrayed Nelson as a candidate of big government with a lousy record as insurance commissioner. Nelson portrayed McCollum as right-wing extremist with a record of protecting special interests at the expense of consumers.

    "You can tell a lot about where a fellow is going by telling where he's been," Nelson said. "Look at the voting record of my opponent. He's voted to cut Medicare, he's voted consistently to cut federal funding increases for education. He has allowed banks to share your personal financial and medical information without your consent or approval."

    Nelson caught McCollum's wrath when Nelson recounted how McCollum in 1995 voted "to eviscerate" Medicare with a $270-billion cut aimed at giving a tax cut to the wealthy.

    "I have never voted to cut Medicare, never, ever. ... What you said is actually a lie. It's not true," McCollum said. His campaign insists he never cut Medicare, and only voted for increases that were smaller than what Democrats wanted in the mid 1990s.

    McCollum had little response when Nelson noted that McCollum two years ago said he would support raising the retirement age for Social Security eligibility.

    "I don't think that way today," McCollum said.

    For the first hour, McCollum and Nelson fielded questions from a panel of south Florida journalists. The second half featured questions e-mailed from residents.

    Organizers did not invite Reform Party candidate Joel Deckard or other more obscure Senate candidates. That left Logan, a Democratic state legislator, to enjoy the role of an independent-minded alternative to partisan bickering.

    "As you've heard tonight, there are stark differences between me and my opponents. One is they all like me, and don't like each other," said Logan, the only candidate to draw laughter from the audience of more than 300.

    The debate also highlighted the many clear philosophical issues between Nelson and McCollum.

    Nelson supports raising the minimum wage; McCollum doesn't. Nelson supports abortion rights; McCollum doesn't. Nelson supports assault weapons bans; McCollum thinks the bans infringe on the Second Amendment. McCollum supports Gov. Jeb Bush's plan to overhaul affirmative action policies in Florida; Nelson doesn't. McCollum supports school vouchers; Nelson doesn't.

    On key national issues, Nelson's platform mirrors Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore's, and McCollum's mirrors George W. Bush's. Both say they want to increase access to prescription drugs, shore up and protect Social Security and provide tax relief, but their proposals differ significantly.

    McCollum maintains that in a time of unprecedented projected budget surpluses, taxpayers should see considerable relief, Social Security can be bolstered and the nation's defense can be built up.

    Nelson says some tax relief is possible, but McCollum's tax cuts are so sweeping that they would leave little money to accomplish anything else.

    Two more encounters are scheduled: Oct 23. in Tampa and Oct. 27 in Orlando.

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