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    Nelson fighting back with cash

    U.S. Senate hopeful Bill Nelson lends his own campaign $100,000 to counter ads from Bill McCollum supporters.

    By SHELBY OPPEL

    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2000


    WEST PALM BEACH -- In the final stretch of Florida's priciest U.S. Senate race ever, Democrat Bill Nelson says he is dipping into his own pocket to counter negative campaign ads bought by friends of his main rival, Republican Bill McCollum.

    Nelson loaned $100,000 to his campaign this week to pay for additional television ads across the state. Nelson said the extra money was needed to answer attacks paid for on McCollum's behalf by the National Rifle Association, and groups that oppose abortion and labor unions.

    McCollum, an Orlando-area congressman who trails Nelson by 5 percentage points in a poll released Thursday, trumpeted details of the loan in a news release headlined "Campaign In Crisis Alert" that accused Nelson of "trying to buy a U.S. Senate seat."

    "Boy, these guys are nasty," Nelson said, reading the release between campaign rallies with singer Jimmy Buffett in Orlando and West Palm Beach.

    As of Oct. 18, Nelson had raised $5.7-million in direct contributions and McCollum had raised more than $7.1-million, on top of the millions both have received from their parties in "soft money" contributions.

    By this week, Nelson had only $250,000 remaining in his campaign coffers to increase his television presence, said Dan McLaughlin, Nelson's campaign director. He borrowed the $100,000 against his personal mutual fund accounts, Nelson said.

    The total of $350,000 will buy more 30-second spots to burnish Nelson's image with voters. Those include a new ad that began airing Thursday in Miami that accuses McCollum of siding with "special interests" against consumers because he sponsored a 1996 bill that allows banks and other financial institutions to share customers' private financial information.

    Nelson said he expects to pay himself back for the loan before Nov. 7 through fund-raisers like those held Thursday night at a venture capitalist's home in West Palm Beach and another at a Miami country club.

    Nelson, the current state insurance commissioner, is an attorney who inherited considerable family wealth. In 1990, he spent $1-million of his own money in an unsuccessful bid to be Florida's governor.

    In the past month, the National Rifle Association, the National Right to Life Committee and the National Right to Work Committee have spent almost $600,000 on ads against Nelson, according to federal campaign finance reports. These independent expenditures aim to aid McCollum's bid to replace retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Connie Mack.

    Nelson, too, has benefited from spending by independent groups, though not as recently as McCollum. In September, Handgun Control Inc., a gun control advocacy group, spent $250,000 on a TV ad campaign that attacked McCollum for opposing bills to close the gun show "loophole" that allows non-dealers to sell firearms without criminal background checks.

    As their television war raged on, the candidates campaigned Thursday in different parts of Florida. McCollum spent the morning waving a campaign sign to commuters on East Bay Drive in Largo, before beginning a bus tour today in south Florida.

    McCollum was buoyed by a new poll showing him in a statistical dead-heat with Nelson. The poll of 577 likely voters, conducted by North Carolina-based Rasmussen Research on Nov. 1, has McCollum at 45 percent and Nelson at 42 percent, with a 4-point margin of error.

    Unaffiliated candidate Willie Logan had 5 percent, Reform candidate Joel Deckard had 1 percent and 7 percent were undecided.

    At the same time, the Nelson campaign released results of a new Mason-Dixon poll that showed Nelson leading McCollum, but by a smaller margin than he has enjoyed recently. The new poll had Nelson at 45 percent, McCollum at 40 percent and Logan at 5 percent, with 10 percent undecided.

    Nelson continued his two-day tour of the state's biggest cities with Buffett, along with Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, in Jacksonville, Orlando, Miami and West Palm Beach. Winter Haven resident Stephen Stills, of the 1970s supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, joined Buffett on stage in Orlando, and feminist icon Gloria Steinem endorsed Nelson in West Palm Beach.

    Steinem arrived from her New York City home to help out Democratic congressional candidates Elaine Bloom and Jean Elliott Brown, in addition to Nelson, because all three support abortion rights. McCollum opposes abortion unless a mother's life is in danger.

    "(McCollum) is very clearly someone who thinks women shouldn't make that decision," Steinem said.

    - Information from Times staff writer Adam C. Smith and Times files was used in this report.

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