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Here's an idea: John Lombardi for U.S. Senate

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 12, 1999


This could be a match made in heaven. Or a brainstorm that sounds good only after a beer or two.

What the U.S. Senate race needs is a pulse. The three top contenders for the job, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republicans Tom Gallagher and Bill McCollum, are career politicians who are about as bland as vanilla ice cream.

What outgoing University of Florida President John Lombardi needs is a new stage. That soft landing studying the history of Venezuela is going to be awfully dull for a charismatic, outspoken guy who enjoys the spotlight.

Why not Lombardi for Senate?

If columnist Arianna Huffington can cook up a Warren Beatty for president boomlet, it ought to be cinch to get a Lombardi draft going. He is just the guy to pump life into this race.

I have no idea whether Lombardi's a Republican or a Democrat. It doesn't matter. Like most Floridians, he sounds fairly conservative on economic issues and fairly liberal on social issues. Think of the possibilities.

Fundraising?

The $10-million or so required for a credible Senate campaign is small change compared with the big money the University of Florida has raised during Lombardi's tenure. He has a potential donor list Gov. Jeb Bush would envy.

Campaign colors?

Five bucks says they would not be garnet and gold.

Campaign debates?

Any time, any place.

Lombardi for Senate might sound off the wall. But it's downright conventional compared with the characters who have recently sought office with little chance of winning.

Jack Gargan, the new chairman of the national Reform Party who wasn't taken seriously when he ran against incumbent Gov. Lawton Chiles in the Democratic primary in 1994.

Don "Big Daddy" Gartlis, the old drag racer who somehow won 43 percent of the vote against U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman of Dunnellon in 1994.

Claude Kirk, the former Republican governor who has run several half-serious campaigns.

We're not talking side shows here. We're talking about somebody with star potential. We're talking about somebody who has not held elected office, who can string together a coherent sentence or two, who can draw a crowd -- and whose last name is not Bush.

Lombardi meets that description.

His accomplishments in Gainesville, from raising the academic stature of the university to his warm relationship with students, are more impressive than the lists of legislation passed by most incumbents. It wouldn't take more than an hour or two to whip up a campaign platform.

Push the value of investing in education at all levels, of course. Lombardi also is bound to be interested in less government regulation and more local control. He could cite specifics about why he believes university presidents should have autonomy. And he could focus on the importance of Latin America, his area of academic expertise.

Lombardi also could appeal to minority voters by defending affirmative action and the need to continue to provide opportunities in public contracting and university admissions. It was his idea to bring to Gainesville one of the country's top advocates of considering race in university admissions to counter Californian Ward Connerly's campaign to ban the practice.

So Lombardi has an ego. Name a U.S. senator who doesn't, with the possible exception of Connie Mack. So Lombardi has had a few rough patches at UF. Better to know the warts now before a tough campaign starts.

He's mouthed off to his bosses, once calling a policy they had approved limiting university expansions "stupid" and "typical of this idiotic system." That sort of straight talk would be a plus in a Senate race.

Then there is that "Oreo" remark about Adam Herbert, an African-American who at the time hadn't even started his job as chancellor. But Lombardi also apologized for that. Apologies go a long way in politics.

See Bill Clinton and his poll numbers.

Lombardi did hand out some awfully big salary increases near the end. But Florida voters rarely hold questionable business deals against candidates they like.

See Jeb Bush and water pumps.

There are some things Lombardi would have to overcome. He wouldn't look that great on television with those glasses perched on his nose. But McCollum and Nelson, the front-runners for the Republican and Democratic nominations, aren't movie stars, either.

This already isn't the best of campaign seasons for former college presidents. Lamar Alexander, who killed some time as president of the University of Tennessee, was blown out of the race for president by a straw poll of all things.

But Lombardi could fare better in a Senate race. Think of the student volunteers he could mobilize. Think of the float he could have in the homecoming parade. Think of that acerbic wit unleashed in a candidate forum against opponents who can only be called dull and duller.

Lombardi for Senate -- or someone fresh like him. You read it here first.

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