TAMPA — As two weeks of early voting in Florida began on Monday, gubernatorial hopeful Bill McCollum barnstormed three critical TV markets, chasing Rick Scott with a Republican icon in tow: former Gov. Jeb Bush.
McCollum trails Scott by single digits in the latest polls, which also show that nearly one in three Republican voters remains undecided ahead of the Aug. 24 primary. With voters inundated by Scott's saturation TV ad campaign, McCollum is banking on a blessing from the popular Bush to nudge many of those fence-sitters in his direction.
"(He's) a conservative through and through, not just when it's cool to be," Bush said of McCollum to a crowd of about 300 people who packed a Jacksonville headquarters, after a stop in Miami and ahead of one in Tampa. "When decisions have to be made that may be tough, Bill doesn't have to go and read a poll. … I want a governor like that."
To defeat Scott, McCollum must be the choice of social conservatives, whose priorities include not only low taxes but also issues such as abortion and gay rights, and McCollum is proposing new restrictions on gay couples who seek to become foster parents.
In an interview with Florida Baptist Witness, McCollum was asked if Florida's existing ban on allowing gay couples to legally adopt children should be expanded to prohibit gays from becoming foster parents.
"I think that would be advisable," McCollum said. "I really do not think that we should have homosexuals guiding our children. I think that it's a lifestyle that I don't agree with. I realize that a lot of people do." He added: "It's not a natural thing. You need a mother and a father. You need a man and a woman. That's what God intended."
Early voting turnout was light Monday at Pinellas County's three sites in St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Largo. Waiting times were brief as fewer than 100 people had showed up by noon, said Nancy Whitlock, a spokeswoman for the county elections office, but about 37,500 mail ballots have been returned, or 16 percent of the 230,000 that were requested.
"People like voting that way," Whitlock said.
In Hillsborough County, a total of 1,703 voters cast ballots Monday at 14 voting sites. By comparison, 1,617 people voted at 20 voting sites on the first day of early voting during the primary in 2006.
Throughout the day, waiting times did not exceed 15 minutes.
"I think we've seen a pretty good turnout, and by all indications, we've been pretty well prepared to handle the turnout," said Travis Abercrombie, a spokesman for the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Office.
Bush cast his early ballot for McCollum in Miami, and they flew to Jacksonville and Tampa, joined by the Legislature's new leaders-in-waiting, Sen. Mike Haridopolos of Melbourne and Rep. Dean Cannon of Winter Park.
Casting aside the McCollum campaign strategy of questioning Scott's ethics at every opportunity, Bush declined to launch an attack against Scott, suggesting that the former governor may not want to be on the outs if Scott is the party nominee.
"I'm not in the attacking business any more," Bush said. Of Scott, he said: "He may be a good guy and he may not be. I don't know. He's new to the game. In these kinds of times I think it's good to have someone who's been tested," like McCollum, who served 20 years in Congress and the past four as state attorney general.
McCollum had to do his own hard hitting, saying Scott has "spent $45 million on self-paid, slick television ads and has a rather shaky background." Scott has finessed his way around the fact that the Columbia/HCA hospital chain he once headed was fined $1.7 billion for Medicare fraud.
Bush received rock-star treatment in Jacksonville as dozens of people waited to hug him or be photographed with him. Some urged him to run for president in 2012; others asked him how his brother and father, the two former presidents, are doing.
These rank-and-file activists repeatedly expressed revulsion at Scott, which could complicate the GOP's efforts to unite around the former hospital executive if he wins the nomination.
"Rick Scott gives me the creeps," said Betty Wolfe, 68, a party volunteer and retired railroad employee at CSX Corp.
Maureen Ortagus, a freelance photographer from St. Augustine, said Scott "scares me. I don't like people buying an election."
Longtime grass roots organizer Nancy Peek McGowan said Scott can't be trusted because he will not hold a statewide TV debate with McCollum. "Any man who won't come forward and present his vision is not ready to lead the state of Florida," McGowan said.
McCollum and Scott are battling over a relatively small pool of votes of perhaps 1 million or fewer statewide. In the last Republican primary for governor, in 2006 between Charlie Crist and Tom Gallagher, statewide turnout was 19.6 percent.
In Tampa, several dozen people crammed into McCollum's Temple Terrace campaign office to see him and Bush.
Bush greeted the crowd by noting that even though Florida has more registered Democrats than Republicans, the GOP controls the Florida House and Senate, and he expected the party to mobilize for this election as well.
And then he took a swipe at Gov. Crist.
"I'm proud to tell you I'm the last Republican governor of the state," he said to a round of laughs.
McCollum, he said, will be the next.
When taking questions from the media, Bush acknowledged that he and McCollum differ on some issues, including whether Florida needs an Arizona-style immigration law, something that McCollum supports and Bush does not.
"So what?" Bush said of the difference, and later said: "I'm not voting for someone to be a clone of me. God forbid if someone actually had all my views. That would be a little scary."
Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo, Michael Van Sickler, Richard Danielson and Janet Zink contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.