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    Clinton scandal surfaces in Senate debate


    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 24, 2000

    TAMPA -- For months, Florida's U.S. Senate candidates have studiously avoided uttering the I-word. Impeachment, and all its polarizing baggage, was better left looming in the background, they decided.

    But in their highest profile debate yet, moderator Tim Russert on Monday pushed them headlong into the question of removing Bill Clinton from office. Russert asked Republican Bill McCollum, one of the House impeachment managers, whether he really believes assertions in his recent fundraising letter that Clinton is bent on "revenge" and out to defeat him.

    "I suspect . . . that he has a special interest in me. I don't know that for sure, but that's what I suspect," McCollum said.

    The live debate on NBC showed U.S. Rep. McCollum, Democratic Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson and unaffiliated candidate Willie Logan sitting at a table. Viewers who skipped Wheel of Fortune or Inside Edition saw three confident and sharp politicians engaging in sometimes testy exchanges over issues ranging from campaign finance reform to abortion to Social Security.

    Several times when McCollum spoke, Nelson smiled and nodded his head with a there-he-goes-again expression. Several times after Nelson finished speaking, McCollum oh-so-politely suggested he was full of it.

    "That is a very spurious comment Mr. Nelson is making, with all due respect," McCollum said, after Nelson said McCollum represents "special interests instead of the peoples' interests."

    It was the first high-profile forum that included a lengthy discussion of impeachment. McCollum is often asked about impeachment, but never brings it up.

    Impeachment "anguished" him personally, McCollum said, but he had an obligation to uphold the Constitution. "I think there are things that do at times go beyond bounds."

    Nelson, for whom Clinton helped raise more than $1-million, also rarely brings up impeachment but quickly attacked the impeachment proceedings as excessively partisan.

    "What the president did was wrong," Nelson said. "He said it was wrong; the American people know it was wrong. I said it was wrong. But it didn't rise to the level of impeachable offense. It became a huge partisan food fight."

    As at other three-way debates in this campaign, Logan clearly benefited by having McCollum and Nelson bore into each other. Logan, barely registering in polls and with a fraction of the campaign money of McCollum or Nelson, mostly stayed above the partisan fray, touting his independence and sincerity.

    When Russert asked the candidates about campaign finance reform, both McCollum and Nelson professed disgust with the unregulated soft money flowing into their own campaigns and balked at the suggestion they stop spending it during the final two weeks of the campaign.

    "They say they're against something, but they're doing it," scoffed Logan, who has taken no soft money. "How do you expect children who will listen to us tonight . . . to believe anything we have to say about what's wrong and what's right."

    Logan, a Democratic state lawmaker from South Florida, butted heads with Nelson more than McCollum. He said, for instance, that as a congressman in the 1980s Nelson once opposed a resolution calling for Nelson Mandela to be freed from a South African prison.

    Nelson responded sharply, saying that, unlike McCollum, he backed economic sanctions against South Africa's apartheid government. He said he opposed the resolution only because it formally recognized the African National Congress as South Africa's governing authority, though there had been no elections.

    Among the three, only McCollum opposes abortion rights, and Russert pressed him about whether he would support a Constitutional amendment banning abortion. McCollum said he doubted that question would surface any time soon, but Russert pushed further.

    "I would support a properly worded Constitutional amendment," McCollum said. "I am pro-life 100 percent. I voted that way. I believe that way."

    Nelson was often the aggressor and frequently painted McCollum as the candidate for special interests. He also jumped on McCollum for having once said he would support raising the minimum Social Security retirement age.

    But McCollum, who said he no longer feels that way, reminded Nelson that in the early 1980s he suggested the same thing.

    Nelson and McCollum have repeatedly warned voters through TV ads that their opponents can't be trusted not to damage Social Security or Medicare. With two weeks left to go, their barrage of television ads is sure to continue.

    The candidates are scheduled to face off for one last debate, though Logan has not been invited because of his poor showing in statewide polls.

    The final debate will be at 8 p.m. Friday in Orlando. In the Tampa Bay area, it will be televised on WTSP-Ch. 10.

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