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    McCollum campaigns on parallel track with Mack, or so he hopes

    By ADAM C. SMITH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 5, 2000


    FORT MYERS -- For months, Florida's Republican U.S. Senate nominee was dismissed as a weak candidate with no experience running statewide. His Democratic opponent painted him as a right-wing extremist, and by Election Day, he earned one newspaper endorsement, compared with 17 for his opponent.

    It sounds a lot like Republican Bill McCollum this year. But the nominee's name was Connie Mack, and in 1988 he wound up winning the Senate seat in a dramatic upset over Democrat Buddy MacKay. Helping McCollum in his closing campaign sprint Saturday, Mack couldn't help but see the parallels to 12 years ago.

    "It really does remind me of the race with Buddy MacKay, when it came down to the very end," Mack said after a McCollum rally in Naples. "Bill's got the momentum. He's got the intensity, and I think he's going to win."

    After months of trailing far behind Democratic Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson, U.S. Rep Bill McCollum has steadily gained in polls and insists he's on the cusp of a Mack-like rally. The state GOP is touting internal polls showing McCollum ahead, and an independent poll last week showed the same.

    Other recent polls have shown Nelson leading, but by a shrinking margin. A New York Times Regional Newspaper Group poll released Saturday showed 46 percent support for Nelson, 39 percent for McCollum, 6 percent for unaffiliated candidate Willie Logan, and 9 percent undecided. The Oct. 26-31 survey of 824 likely voters had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

    Nelson spent Saturday campaigning in Fort Lauderdale and Tampa and was due to join vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman in Winter Park in the evening. He dismissed the comparison between this race and 1988, saying that polls in 1988 showed a dead heat between MacKay and Mack in the closing days.

    "It's not a comparable situation," Nelson said. "We are still holding a fairly solid lead, and all the negative television ads have not eroded that."

    Just as U.S. Sen. Bob Graham has been campaigning with Nelson lately, Mack is taking a high-profile role in the closing days of the McCollum campaign, including TV ads in which he and his wife, Priscilla, anoint McCollum as his proper heir.

    Mack joined McCollum in Republican-friendly counties in southwest Florida and today will campaign with him in Clearwater before they join George W. Bush at rallies across the state. A new McCollum TV ad started running Friday with both Mack and George W. Bush hailing McCollum.

    On election night in 1988, a number of TV stations were calling the narrow race a MacKay victory. But as the absentee ballots came in, Mack came out on top in the closest election in state history.

    Florida GOP Chairman Al Cardenas, also campaigning with McCollum and Mack Saturday, said Republicans have an even more aggressive absentee ballot effort this year and predicted Republicans would lead Democrats in absentee voting by as much as 150,000 votes. Mack also pointed to a major advantage McCollum has over his race in 1988: a net gain over Democrats of 600,000 registered Republican voters in Florida.

    Then again, Mack didn't have to deal with a strong presidential campaign in Florida. In 1988, Michael Dukakis gave up on Florida weeks before the election, and George Bush overwhelmingly won the state.

    Relaxed and upbeat in a plaid shirt, Mack is likely working his last campaign as an elected leader. He and his wife have sold their home in Washington and are building a new one on Palm Island, near Boca Grande. He said he is interviewing with several associations, institutions and companies involved in medical research, his main passion.

    "I'm still at a point in my life where being active is important," he said. "I was so glad to hand that to Bill."

    -- Times staff writer Shelby Oppel contributed to this report.

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