Low-polling Logan poised for influence
By ADAM C. SMITH
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 25, 2000
At the end of Florida's first live televised U.S. Senate debate Monday, moderator Tim Russert asked Willie Logan the question that has surrounded his quixotic candidacy from the start: Is Logan a spoiler on the verge of throwing the election to the GOP?
Logan dodged. "I will wake up Wednesday (after Election Day) as the next junior senator from the state of Florida," he insisted.
By any objective measure, that's highly unlikely. The latest major independent polls from early this month showed Logan, unaffiliated with any party, receiving 3 or 4 percent of the vote.
But as Republican Bill McCollum scrambles to catch up with Democrat Bill Nelson in the final two weeks of the Senate race, don't count Logan out as a major player in the outcome. The maverick South Florida lawmaker caught a break Wednesday when a group of television stations changed their minds and decided to let him participate in the final televised Senate debate Friday.
Lousy poll numbers or not, Logan cannot and will not ignored.
"If McCollum actually does close the gap (with Nelson), Logan could be the deciding factor," said Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida. "Ninety percent of Logan's supporters are people who would normally vote for Nelson."
Like Ralph Nader in the presidential race, Logan dismisses the spoiler talk, saying it implies only well-funded, party-annointed candidates should seek public office. Floridians, he says, want a choice other than "politics as usual."
With no money for television ads, the debates offer Logan his best shot at reaching voters.
In past debates, Logan has portrayed himself as the independent, above-it-all alternative to the two partisans, McCollum and Nelson. And despite Miami Herald articles earlier this summer raising questions about Logan's business ethics, McCollum and Nelson consistently avoided any criticism of the Opa-locka lawmaker.
"He's my friend," said Nelson, downplaying Logan's effect on the contest.
"You always have to be concerned, but fortunately there has not been any traction there, and I think it's going to remain that way," Nelson said.
Republicans, meanwhile, are hoping Logan picks up steam. When the Florida News Network initially decided Logan's poll numbers were too low to earn an invitation to the debate, McCollum promptly fired off a letter calling for his inclusion.
"The pundits are telling me that the better Willie Logan does, the better the chances for Bill McCollum," said Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas, suggesting Logan pulling just 6 percent could hand the election to McCollum.
An African-American Democrat who backed Republican Jeb Bush for governor, Logan, 43, is candid and not easily pigeon-holed politically. Logan declared himself a political "free agent" after House Democrats ousted him as their speaker-designate in 1998.
Now, as he runs for Senate, he's willing to forgo safe and conventional positions: He opposes the Cuban embargo as a failed policy; he questions the wisdom of locking up so many people for drug crimes; he supports school vouchers; he would raise the eligibility age for Social Security.
When he started his Senate campaign, Logan talked about raising at least $1-million, and he lined up Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura's media consultant to handle his crucial TV campaign. But the momentum never came.
He tried to grab attention with a motorcycle tour across Florida, and he has traveled from forum to forum, rarely receiving much publicity. He has raised less than $350,000, compared with more than $13-million between McCollum and Nelson. He had predicted double-digit poll showings by the fall but instead saw his numbers drop below 5 percent by October.
In April, the Miami Herald reported that Logan had taken a $63,000 personal loan from his Community Development Agency, money that otherwise would have benefited low- and moderate-income residents. Logan paid the money back after the revelations.
The Herald also reported that Logan accepted about $11,000 in reimbursement for renting his state legislative offices, even though he had not paid the rent. He said he intended to.
The statewide campaign has been more difficult than he expected, Logan acknowledged. He hadn't expected raising money outside South Florida to be so tough, and he spoke with some bitterness about the media largely ignoring him.
"The press has always written about me in terms that I'm not a contender. You've said to the people, "You really have only two choices here,' " he said.
The Florida News Network, a group of Florida television stations organizing Friday's debate, had initially withheld an invitation to Logan because he had not met their threshold of reaching at least 10 percent in statewide polls. FNN relented after Logan pointed to recent tracking polls by New Jersey-based Survey USA showing him winning between 9 percent and 12 percent support.
Survey USA uses an automated calling system that other pollsters consider highly suspect. But Dan Leveton of FNN said at least one Florida TV station uses Survey USA, and organizers did not want to get mired in a debate over polling methodology.
Logan attributed the higher poll numbers to his strong debate performances. Friday's debate will air at 8 p.m. on WTSP-Ch. 10.
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