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Beyond ads, many issues divide them

Differences in priorities and philosophy mark the U.S. Senate candidates, who defy easy labeling.

By ADAM C. SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 6, 2000


To Bill McCollum, Florida's Senate race boils down to who will fight for limited government. To Bill Nelson, the fundamental question is who will stand up against special interests.

Amid the blur of negative TV attacks that have dominated Florida's first open Senate race in 12 years, voters should be forgiven for wondering whether these guys really stand for anything.

They do.

Ignore their mutually misleading ads accusing each other of trying to wreck Social Security or having raised taxes. Look beyond the posed images of the two Bills earnestly talking to adoring school kids. What you find buried beneath the focus group-driven TV messages are two candidates with basic and clear differences in priorities and philosophy.

But also forget about the labels they're trying to stick on each other.

Calling Democratic Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson a liberal -- in Congress he voted against the creation of the Department of Education and for much of Ronald Reagan's fiscal and foreign policy agenda -- is more than a stretch. Likewise, Republican U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum -- who voted to let consumers sue HMOs and fought his party's efforts to gut legal services for the poor -- can't merely be defined as a partisan right-winger.

It's instructive to ask them about the fundamental purpose of their candidacy. For McCollum, 56, a U.S. representative from the Orlando area, it's fighting for limited government. While he talks about striving for a nation that "leaves no one behind," he believes the federal government should largely stay out of the way of local communities and businesses.

Civil libertarians have reviled McCollum for consistently working to increase the reach and authority of law enforcement, but outside of criminal justice issues, McCollum's record is solidly for keeping government out of the way of free enterprise.

Significantly, though, his "better government, not bigger government" mantra does not imply cutting government, as outgoing GOP Sen. Connie Mack did in his 1988 campaign to win the Senate seat.

"I happen to believe very deeply that government is best that's closest to the people," McCollum says. "Mr. Nelson's views are largely for increasing the size of federal government."

However, Nelson, 58, touts the need for lean and efficient government, and in Congress during the 1980s often voted with McCollum on spending questions. Unlike McCollum, Nelson is more comfortable with the concept of government playing an active role in regulating industry and providing a safety net to communities. He has a lot less faith in big businesses doing the right thing when left to their own devices.

"If there's one thing I've learned as insurance commissioner, it's that average citizens' priorities will be ignored by the special interests and big corporations unless somebody stands up for the average citizens," said Nelson, who as Florida's insurance commissioner often clashes with insurers over proposed rate increases.

Floridians on Tuesday have a choice between two experienced and articulate politicians with basic differences in priorities. Also on the ballot are Reform Party candidate Joel Deckard and Willie Logan, a longtime Democratic state representative running without party affiliation, among others.

They seek a six-year term as one of Florida's two U.S. senators. Here's a primer on where they stand:

HEALTH CARE: Like almost every other candidate for federal office in America, Nelson and McCollum both say they're determined to give seniors better access to prescription drug coverage. Their approaches are sharply different, though, and mirror the proposals of George W. Bush and Al Gore. Nelson and Logan back adding a voluntary prescription drug benefit to Medicare, while McCollum backs a less expensive plan that relies largely on private insurers and would subsidize costs for low-income seniors.

CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM: Nelson, McCollum and Logan want to ban "soft money" funneled into campaigns through largely unrestricted contributions to the political parties. But Nelson said he would join Republican Sen. John McCain in fighting for his reform proposal, which McCollum voted against. Logan would join McCain's fight, too.

McCollum says he had "free speech concerns" with parts of McCain's bill and backed an alternative proposal to eliminate soft money. The watchdog group Common Cause says that alternative proposal would have allowed soft money to continue flowing to state parties.

SOCIAL SECURITY: Again, their positions echo the presidential candidates. All the candidates say preserving and protecting Social Security is a top priority. McCollum and Logan would let younger workers invest a small portion of their payroll taxes in the stock market to improve returns. Nelson says that would threaten current beneficiaries by pulling too much money out of the Social Security Trust Fund. Both would earmark some of the projected federal budget surplus toward shoring up Social Security, but Nelson says he would earmark more because he advocates less sweeping tax breaks.

TAXES: Both major candidates support tax cuts, but McCollum is much more generous. He proposes cuts similar to Bush's $1.3-trillion plan. Unlike Gore, Nelson agrees with Bush and McCollum about eliminating inheritance taxes and the marriage penalty, but he advocates more "targeted" cuts totaling about $600-billion.

Nelson says McCollum's tax cuts are so sweeping they would "squander" the projected surplus. "It would not leave us with anything left that we could then do on such things as education, Social Security and prescription drug benefits," Nelson said.

McCollum dismisses Nelson's "targeted" cuts: "It's just a fancy way for liberals to say the government will decide who gets the money."

ABORTION: Nelson early in his political career consistently supported proposed restrictions on abortion, but he now campaigns as a staunch supporter of abortion rights. He opposes federal funding for abortion, except in cases of rape, incest or when a mother's health is threatened. He also opposes proposals to ban so-called "partial birth abortions." McCollum calls himself "pro-life 100 percent," and said he would support a constitutional amendment to make abortions illegal, unless a mother's life is in danger.

DEFENSE/FOREIGN POLICY: A top priority for McCollum is building up the military, which he says has been cut too far and spread too thin in recent years. An ardent critic of President Clinton's foreign policy, McCollum says the United States should only mobilize its military when vital interests are at stake and not be the world's police force.

Nelson also says he would beef up the defense and raise pay for military personnel, but dismisses McCollum's suggestion that America's military readiness is dangerously low. Nelson says he supported America's intervention in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. McCollum says he opposes all three interventions.

GUN CONTROL: In Congress, McCollum was a leading force in opposing an assault weapons ban and the Brady bill, requiring a waiting period and background check for handgun purchases. Nelson disagrees with McCollum on those issues. McCollum also supported mandatory trigger locks and, like Nelson, opposes registration and licensing of gun owners.

ENVIRONMENT: Nelson, McCollum and Logan all call themselves strong environmentalists, but McCollum has voted to weaken environmental regulations, including the Clean Water Act. Nelson was endorsed by the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters.

OTHER PRIORITIES: McCollum, much more than Nelson, stresses the importance of tough drug and crime measures. Nelson, unlike McCollum, stresses the importance of fighting fraud against the government and protecting the privacy of consumers' medical and financial records. Logan stresses the need for leaders to pursue independent, non-partisan agendas.

- Times staff writer Shelby Oppel contributed to this report.

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