Anointed by GOP leaders, McCollum struggles for traction with voters

In the year of the outsider, Bill McCollum is the consummate insider.

He spent 20 years in Congress, worked as a $400,000-a-year Washington lobbyist for big corporations, then won election in 2006 as state attorney general. This is his fourth statewide campaign in a decade.

Add in high name recognition, a generally conservative record and major endorsements (Jeb, Newt, Mitt) and you have in most years a resume that's tailor-made for a Republican nominee for governor.

But a disillusioned electorate appears mesmerized by Rick Scott, the guy who's buying his way into living rooms. It's a cruel turn for McCollum, whose fate rests on the Aug. 24 primary.

He has the experience and knowledge to be governor but lacks a dynamic personality to channel voter anger into votes. His best hope is to make the election a referendum on integrity and raise enough doubt about Scott's character by pounding away at the Medicare fraud that took place on Scott's watch.

Bespectacled and buttoned-down, McCollum sprinkles his conversations with words like "promulgate," but dismisses the notion that he's an uninspiring speaker.

"I can inspire people. I'm confident of that," he said. "Because people will come up to me and tell me, 'I didn't know you could do that!' "

• • •

Ira William McCollum Jr. was a small-town kid who grew up on a cattle ranch in Brooksville. When he was 6, his mother died, and young Bill was raised largely by his grandparents. His father, Ira Sr., is still alive at age 95.

McCollum's studiousness emerged early. He was president of his high school class, a conservative activist on the UF campus during the mid '60s, and a military lawyer in the Navy Judge Adjutant General's (JAG) Corps.

His grasp of policy details is something he mastered in Congress (1980-2000) where he was considered an expert on law and order and international terrorism. "A force to be reckoned with on all sides," the Almanac of American Politics wrote in 1992.

When McCollum says, "I was tea party before there was a tea party," he's not kidding.

He helped craft Newt Gingrich's Contract with America in 1994, and served as one of the floor managers of President Bill Clinton's impeachment in 1998.

As state attorney general, McCollum has devoted more resources to protecting children from the perils of online child predators. On the campaign trail, he cites as his signature accomplishment his lawsuit to prevent President Barack Obama's health care mandate from taking effect.

• • •

McCollum, 66, seeks the job of governor with hands-on, sleeves-rolled-up earnestness.

He said he would make jobs his No. 1 priority and travel the world as Florida's "chief economic development officer." His plan to create 500,000 jobs has been blessed by flat-tax advocate Steve Forbes.

By nature a delegator of authority, McCollum said he would "lead by consensus."

He wants to improve the school system, reduce the corporate income tax rate and enact tax breaks to nurture high-paying tech jobs. He promises to tackle one of the state's most daunting challenges: the need for a sustainable water supply.

"We're going to bring together the best and the brightest, and many of them are in this room," McCollum said recently in delivering his stump speech at a Leadership Florida event in Fort Myers. "What are the alternatives? What are the solutions? What are the options? And what's the preferred option? And then we're going to have a conversation with the people of Florida and we're going to reach a consensus about what we're going to do."

Drawing on his solidly pro-business voting record in Congress, McCollum promises to curb state regulation of business and cut down on frivolous lawsuits with "litigation reform." Groups that share his priorities, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have donated generously to his campaign.

Friends say that behind the scenes McCollum is trustworthy, reliable and more affable than he comes across in public.

"He's a person of integrity and of good character," said lawyer Chris Kise, who knows McCollum well. "If you had to pick a couple to be your next-door neighbor, it would be Bill and Ingrid. He's a regular guy."

"Bill McCollum just really has a grasp of policy that's remarkable as politicians go," said John Stemberger, a social conservative activist and Orlando lawyer.

McCollum lacks the glad-handing skills of Charlie Crist or the star power of Jeb Bush. He's more comfortable talking policy than making small talk.

"As likable as he is, McCollum does not have a major presence," said Tom Slade of Jacksonville, a former Republican Party leader. "He's a small, kind of weak-voiced lawyer."

At 5 feet 7, McCollum cannot dominate a room. Reserved and polite, he rarely raises his voice, which has a smooth, comfortable cadence after all those years of making speeches. "How's everybody doin' today?" he asked as he began a news conference.

• • •

In the brutal arena of Florida statewide politics, McCollum has an uneven track record.

He lost his first U.S. Senate race to Democrat Bill Nelson in 2000, the year George W. Bush's 537-vote Florida victory carried no coattails for him.

Four years later, he lost the Republican U.S. Senate primary to Mel Martinez. It was an ugly race punctuated by vicious attacks on McCollum for "pandering to the radical homosexual lobby" by co-sponsoring a bill in Congress to include hate-crime protections for gays and lesbians, a position he still defends.

In 2006, he earned his first statewide victory, becoming attorney general. He planned to run for re-election until Gov. Crist bypassed a second term in favor of a U.S. Senate bid, which at the time made McCollum the inevitable Republican choice for governor.

Then along came Scott with a fresh face, mountains of money and instant recognition in polls.

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

McCollum sounds mystified by Scott's brush-fire appeal, pointing to his rival's history as chief executive of Columbia/HCA, the hospital chain caught in a massive Medicare fraud scheme in the 1990s.

"I just don't see why people would want to elect him, knowing that, when they've got somebody in me on the Republican side who's been very consistent in my conservative views," McCollum said.

At the same time, McCollum recognizes some missteps of his own this year.

He did not quickly solidify the Republican base, allowing Scott to position himself to McCollum's right.

He misread the public mood on illegal immigration, initially calling Arizona's law "far out." He now supports the revised law.

"I think Arizona has its own unique problems. I don't think Florida should enact laws like this that are quite that far out," McCollum said in April.

And in the face of Scott's millions, McCollum waged a zealous pursuit of taxpayer money — bucking the Republican mainstream, which considers public financing "welfare for politicians."

• • •

As a boy growing up in Brooksville, McCollum fished, played baseball and idolized Willie Mays.

He would lie in bed at night and listen to scratchy radio broadcasts via KMOX in St. Louis when Mays' New York Giants played the Cardinals, or WLW, the Cincinnati Reds' flagship station.

"At night, you could pick up those stations in Brooksville," he remembers. "Not clearly, but you could pick them up."

He and his wife of 38 years, Ingrid, live in Longwood. They love going to the movies and spending time with their three sons and two grandsons.

McCollum's idea of a good time is a relaxing meal at a Golden Corral — not surprising for a politician whose stump speech has an eat-your-vegetables quality.

"There's a lot of Golden Corrals in the state. I like the fact that I get vegetables there, and I get ice cream at the end," he said. "That's really nice."

In just over two weeks, this stalwart of Florida politics will either be the Republican nominee for governor or suffer what's seen as the kiss of death: a third statewide defeat.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Anointed by GOP leaders, McCollum struggles for traction with voters 08/09/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 9, 2010 3:03pm]

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