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Songs in his heart, politics on his mind

Jimmy Buffett, the popular singer, ardent Democrat and hard-shell environmentalist brings his message to Tampa.

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 2, 2000


photo
[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
The man who put Margaritaville on the map brought his show to Tampa as part of a five-city campaign swing.
TAMPA -- Ask U.S. Senate candidate Bill Nelson's daughter what sort of music the family likes, and the answer comes right out of the 1950s.

"We love musical theater and show tunes," Nan Ellen Nelson, 23, said the other day.

But that doesn't cut it in Florida. Not for the state's Democrats. Not in the closing days of a campaign.

And so, there was Nelson, tie-less in a crisp, button-down shirt, traveling through the state Wednesday with Florida singer Jimmy Buffett, the performer of choice for the state's Democrats since the mid 1980s.

Not that they really know each other.

"Is he originally from Pensacola?" Nelson, 58, asked of the man who put Margaritaville on the map.

Buffett, born and raised in Mobile, Ala., lives part of the year in a Palm Beach home appraised at $6.4-million. He arrived for this week's statewide campaign swing with Nelson on his own Falcon 50, a business jet that seats 12 and features a painted parrot on its tail.

In five mini-concerts Wednesday, Buffett, 53, played alone, barefoot, in khaki shorts, sunglasses and a baseball cap pulled over his balding head. A die-hard Democrat, he made it clear he doesn't want Nelson's Republican rival, U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, to win.

"The Republicans do not have an environmental policy because if they did, they'd talk about it," said Buffett, a frequent contributor to Democratic candidates who uses his celebrity to advocate for the protection of endangered manatees and against offshore oil drilling.

Buffett played the warm-up act for presidential candidate Al Gore in Tampa on Wednesday, drawing several thousand fans who were there as much to see the singer as the politicians. Over the years, Buffett has lent his star power to President Clinton's campaigns, and those of Sen. Bob Graham and the late Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Nelson, known for his squeaky-clean demeanor, stood behind Buffett on makeshift stages on Wednesday's tour to sing about "wasting away in Margaritaville." In Tallahassee, Buffett changed the lyrics of another Parrothead favorite, Volcano, to reflect his distaste for GOP presidential candidate and Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

"Don't want no air that smells like Texas, no oil rigs in the Apalachee Bay ..." Buffett sang at 8 a.m., as a young fan held up a bottle of tequila in tribute.

Buffett's presence did more than swell the crowds at Nelson's tarmac rallies. It also bolstered Nelson's pitch that he is the heir to the legacy of Chiles and Graham -- popular, progressive Democrats with pro-environment records.

The singer rarely mentioned Nelson without naming Chiles, Graham or Gore in the same breath. At every stop, he blasted Bush for allowing oil companies to drill along the Texas Gulf Coast.

"I don't want that on the Gulf Coast of Florida, and I know Al Gore and Bill Nelson and Bob Graham feel the same way ... and I can't get those same assurances from the Bushes -- either of them," said Buffett, referring to the Texas governor and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Buffett has known Graham the longest, since the former Florida governor attended a Buffett concert at Florida State University during Graham's days in Tallahassee. Graham introduced him to Chiles, whom Buffett calls "a great man and a real populist," and the singer grew close to him and wife, Rhea.

Asked how Buffett came to stump for him this week, Nelson said he didn't know but guessed that Buffett contacted him, based on Nelson's Congressional record of preventing offshore oil drilling along Florida's east coast.

"He is a true environmentalist," Nelson said of Buffett.

Actually, it was Rhea Chiles who asked for Buffett's help, said Dan McLaughlin, Nelson's campaign director.

McCollum, a 20-year member of Congress from the Orlando area, also opposes offshore oil drilling, but he has been a frequent target of environmental advocacy groups. This month, the national League of Conservation Voters, a generally liberal group, named McCollum to it's "Dirty Dozen" list of members of Congress who have done the most to endanger clean air and water.

Buffett's appearances for Nelson in Tallahassee, Pensacola, Panama City, Fort Myers and Tampa on Wednesday seemed as much anti-McCollum as they were pro-Nelson.

"I see these turkey buzzards circling in downtown Tampa," Buffett said. "I think they're looking for Bill McCollum meat."

- Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

McCollum predicts win in Senate race

At a news conference in Tallahassee Wednesday, Republican U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum predicted he will win the Senate race Tuesday with 51 percent of the vote.

McCollum said he believes Nelson will get about 45 percent of the vote with Rep. Willie Logan and other lesser known candidates getting the remaining 4 percent.

"I feel it in my bones," McCollum said. "This is moving in our direction."

McCollum was joined by former Gov. Wayne Mixson, a Democrat, who crossed party lines to endorse McCollum.

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