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Bill McCollum withholds backing for fellow Republican Rick Scott, citing qualms about honesty

TALLAHASSEE — Bill McCollum doesn't forget easily.

Two days after he lost the Republican nomination for governor, McCollum still refuses to support winner Rick Scott and continues to raise questions about his former rival's character.

In his first public appearance since conceding the race, McCollum said Thursday that he called Scott to "congratulate him and wish him well." But he didn't bury the hatchet in one of the nastiest primaries in state history.

"I still have serious questions … about issues of his character, his integrity, his honesty — things that go back to Columbia/HCA," McCollum said, referring to Scott's former hospital chain, which paid a $1.7 billion fine after a federal criminal investigation. "As other voters will do, I will judge him throughout this campaign."

The attorney general's remarks put a serious dent in the message of party unity and reopened a vulnerability Democratic candidate Alex Sink is likely to exploit in the general election.

"I have never been associated with any whiff of a scandal or corruption or cheating the government," Sink said Thursday, referring to Scott.

Unlike McCollum, other top Republicans are willing to move on. Florida GOP chairman John Thrasher met with Scott for nearly two hours on Thursday at his campaign headquarters in Fort Lauderdale.

The two men didn't dwell on the attacks exchanged in the primary, and Scott agreed to help the party he once fought against.

"We already agreed we weren't going to pull up the past, that we were going to move forward," Thrasher said. "It was a great, positive meeting."

Scott said he would raise money for the GOP ticket in the general election, and his staff will help direct campaign efforts at party headquarters in Tallahassee.

But McCollum isn't willing to rinse his distaste so quickly.

The last time he lost a bruising campaign — the 2004 U.S. Senate Republican primary against Mel Martinez — it took McCollum two weeks before he tepidly endorsed his opponent. And it came only after Martinez apologized.

McCollum, who spoke to reporters after a Cabinet meeting at the Capitol, did not share details about his brief conversation with Scott. He also said he received calls from Sink and independent candidate Bud Chiles, but declined to endorse anyone in the governor's race.

"It is unfortunate for Bill McCollum that he has chosen to be a sore loser just as he was following his defeat to Sen. Martinez in 2004," said Scott spokeswoman Jennifer Baker.

Asked to analyze his failed bid, McCollum acknowledged that he didn't adequately respond to Scott's attacks and blamed his opponent's millions.

"There's not a single bullet in this race," he said. "The bottom line is he outspent us. He had a lot of negative ads. We were never able to rebut them at the end the way I'd like to. I'm sure that had its effect."

McCollum broadcast his share of attacks against Scott. But he also relied on traditional media coverage and newspaper endorsements, as well as the support from big-name Republicans like Mike Huckabee and Jeb Bush, to spread his message.

"You always look back and second-guess a few things, but there are very few things you can say you'd do differently," he said. "I'm very proud of how the race was run."

McCollum said he is now focused on his final four months as the state's top legal officer and pressing the lawsuit against the federal government concerning the health care law.

And once he leaves office, he said, he plans to stay involved in defining the state's future.

"Will I continue to take part in it? Of course I will," he said. "Maybe not in elective office. But I'm not going to sit on the sidelines, as some people have done, and just sort of walk away."

Times/Herald staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Bill McCollum withholds backing for fellow Republican Rick Scott, citing qualms about honesty 08/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 27, 2010 8:07am]
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