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    U.S. Senate race strikes dull note

    Florida's U.S. Senate race plays in the background as a hotly contested presidential ticket takes center stage.

    By ADAM C. SMITH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 30, 2000


    As campaign backdrops go, Clearwater's 10,000-resident Top of the World condo complex is a dream for candidates eager to generate television footage of hundreds of enthusiastic seniors.

    But when Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Bill McCollum rolled into the Top of the World clubhouse one night last week, languid Lawrence Welk music wafted over a room filled with mostly empty chairs and not a single TV camera. McCollum found about three dozen drowsy Republicans. Most knew little about him, and several didn't know who else was running.

    The scene perfectly summed up Florida's Senate race, where two charismatically challenged candidates are struggling to generate enthusiasm and attention amid the din of a dead-heat presidential race.

    Floridians will decide in just eight days who fills the first open Senate seat this state has had in 12 years. Outside of party activists, though, it's tough to find people who are interested. Polls indicate that hundreds of thousands of likely voters haven't made up their minds.

    "Floridians usually love their senators, but in this race, voters are having trouble liking either one of them," said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. "It's one of the biggest surprises of this election cycle that a race as critical as an open U.S. Senate seat has placed so low on the radar screen for most Floridians."

    Voters, campaign strategists and political scientists blame an array of factors for dimming excitement for the race between U.S. Rep. McCollum and Democratic Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson: Neither one is especially dynamic; their platforms are largely indistinguishable from the presidential candidates; their own messages are often lost amid their steady barrage of negative ads; McCollum and Nelson can't compete for attention with the neck-and-neck presidential race in Florida.

    "The Senate race is unbelievable," Marilyn Adler of Clearwater said as she looked around a sparsely attended McCollum rally in St. Petersburg with former GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole last week. "Everybody's focused on the presidential race."

    The last time Florida had a race for an open Senate seat -- Buddy MacKay versus Connie Mack in 1988 -- the presidential contest between George Bush and Michael Dukakis barely registered as background noise. With Bush leading in the polls by 20 points or more, Dukakis pulled out of Florida weeks before the election. Mack wound up edging out MacKay in the closest statewide election in Florida history.

    This time around, Republicans had expected George W. Bush's coattails to be a big factor for McCollum. Instead, they have a too-close-to-call battle between George W. Bush and Al Gore that has pushed the Senate contenders into the background.

    "As long as Bush is 4 or 5 points up or down, it's our race to run, without any particular effect from him," McCollum said.

    McCollum campaigns as a man of integrity and principle who will fight against big government. Nelson touts himself as the mainstream candidate who will stand up for Florida's interests against powerful special interests. But those messages have been largely secondary to their nasty attacks oneach other.

    Since Labor Day, Floridians have been treated to a steady diet of TV ads portraying Nelson and McCollum as enemies of Social Security and Medicare; Nelson as a big government liberal; McCollum as a right-wing extremist; Nelson as a flop as insurance commissioner; McCollum as a liar about Nelson's record; Nelson as someone running away from his record. And on and on.

    "They're all attack ads," said Florida Voter pollster Jim Kane. "That kind of campaign doesn't elicit a lot of enthusiasm from voters. Those negatives ads don't motivate people; they turn people off."

    A New York Times/CBS News poll last week showed both Nelson and McCollum receiving lower favorability ratings than the presidential candidates in Florida. Asked whether the candidates are spending more time explaining their positions or attacking their opponents, 41 percent said McCollum was attacking and 27 percent felt he was explaining. For Nelson, 34 percent felt he was mostly explaining and 35 percent said he was mostly attacking.

    "I think we've probably overdone the negative on both sides," said Florida GOP Chairman Al Cardenas.

    Look for more of the same in the final days of the campaign as both parties and campaigns continue their TV battles. The GOP committed more than $3-million toward TV buys on McCollum's behalf, and Democrats nearly as much, according to estimates by the campaigns.

    In 1988, MacKay was hit with a last-minute blitz of attack ads funded by an independent interest group representing dealers of Japanese cars. Both camps have been warily watching for last-minute surprises this year.

    Late last week, an anti-union group, the National Right to Work Committee, started airing ads blasting Nelson for refusing to pledge to fight "the union bosses' agenda" and "hiding his views on forced unionism." The Nelson campaign said that the National Rifle Association last week also started running ads attacking Nelson, though the NRA would not confirm that.

    Nelson has benefited from independent expenditures, too. Handgun Control Inc., a gun control advocacy group, ran ads attacking McCollum as an opponent of common-sense gun control measures earlier in the campaign.

    When new campaign reports came out last week, this Senate race became the most expensive one in Florida history.

    To date, McCollum and Nelson have spent more than $10-million and raised nearly $13-million, and that doesn't include the estimated more than $5-million in soft money already committed to the race. Before this campaign, the record was the 1986 race between incumbent Paula Hawkins and then Gov. Bob Graham, which cost $12.6-million.

    Nelson's most generous contributors include trial lawyers and unions.

    McCollum's include banks and financial firms well acquainted with the Orlando area congressman and vice chairman of the House Banking and Financial Services Committee.

    Still, spending in Florida's Senate race is dwarfed by others across the country.

    The Center for Responsive Politics ranks the race ninth in the nation in spending, with the New York race between Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio topping the list at $63.7-million spent to date.

    Even if Nelson wins Florida's second Senate seat, most pundits say Democrats are unlikely to win control of the Senate this year.

    But the race is being closely watched nationally as a barometer of the Democrats' resurgence in the South.

    Polls have long indicated the race was Nelson's to lose, although both sides have expected it to tighten up in the closing weeks.

    One poll released last week showed it a dead heat, while another showed Nelson comfortably ahead.

    Those polls put unaffiliated candidate Willie Logan at 7 percent and 4 percent, while Reform Party nominee Joel Deckard has consistently polled at about 1 percent.

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