TALLAHASSEE — From newspapers to blogs to cable news, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum captured the national spotlight Tuesday for leading the court fight against President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
Moments after Obama signed the massive health care bill, McCollum and 12 other state attorneys general filed suit in federal court to block what he said is an unconstitutional mandate that people buy health insurance or face fines. The suit also targets the costly expansion of Medicaid.
"We simply cannot afford to do the things in this bill that we're mandated to do," McCollum, a Republican candidate for governor, said in a packed news conference in Tallahassee, hours after making his pitch on Fox News.
Normally, that sort of media exposure is campaign gold. But this year, the electorate is tough to gauge, pollsters say.
Though most polls show more Americans opposed the health care bill than supported it, recent surveys suggest that people are warming up to it. Gallup, one of the nation's leading polling firms, reported Tuesday that 49 percent of those surveyed now support the bill's passage, while 40 percent oppose it.
With such swings in sentiment, pollsters and political strategists are split over whether McCollum's court fight is a vote-getter or a risk to his gubernatorial campaign if more Floridians start supporting the law. The new law calls for $250 subsidies for some needy seniors, some small-business tax credits and more insurance coverage for children with pre-existing conditions.
All those benefits start just before the November elections.
"Republicans need to be careful about this," said pollster John Zogby. "When campaign season kicks in and people start asking you what you've done, it's dangerous to say, 'I opposed, I opposed, I opposed.' That can work in a Republican primary. But in a general election in Florida, it could be a bad strategy."
So far, McCollum hasn't offered any major policy proposals on health care in Florida, where an estimated 3.7 million to 4 million residents — about 20 percent of the population — lack coverage. McCollum said he wants the state to improve on its 2003 medical malpractice reforms to lower health insurance costs.
Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the Democratic front-runner for governor, hasn't made it a high priority, either.
Asked what he has done to help reduce the ranks of the uninsured or improve the quality of health care, McCollum said: "That's not my job to do as attorney general." But, he said, he has "advocated'' good public policy.
McCollum said his job is to protect citizens from laws like the health care overhaul.
He noted that one state attorney general who has joined the lawsuit, James "Buddy'' Caldwell of Louisiana, is a Democrat.
"This is not a partisan issue in terms of the constitutionality of this law," McCollum said. "It's a question (about) the rights and freedoms of the individual citizens in upholding our constitutional duties."
Kellyanne Conway, a Republican who has conducted polls for the Times/Herald, said McCollum's high-profile strategy appears sound — but he'll need to make the case that he and the other attorneys general are pushing the suit for the right reasons.
"He's going to have to explain that they're not a collection of sore losers, but defenders of the Constitution," Conway said. "The gamble is between whether people see this bill as a fait accompli and that it's time to move on, or if they regard the courts as the arena of last resort to stop something they don't want."
So far, polls show McCollum leads his Republican rival, Sen. Paula Dockery, and Sink.
Sink criticized McCollum for hiring outside lawyers for the suit from Baker & Hostetler, a Washington firm where McCollum used to lobby. Sink said it was a "sweetheart deal'' motivated by a politician "obsessed by Washington."
But Democrats might need to do more than snipe at McCollum, said pollster Tony Fabrizio, who often conducts surveys for Republicans. He said elderly people are among those most likely to vote and among the most likely to oppose the health care package because of cuts to Medicare.
After a year's worth of Republicans' tarring the health care legislation, he said, Democrats have to do a better job of selling it in time for the Nov. 2 general elections.
"They have to redefine what this is all about," Fabrizio said. "And they have to do it in short order."
Marc Caputo can be reached at email@example.com.