TALLAHASSEE — Attorney General Bill McCollum's once-certain path to the Republican nomination for governor is in trouble, with supporters for the first time voicing anxiety about his chances and questioning his strategy.
Trailing newcomer Rick Scott by 13 points in a recent statewide poll and unable to match Scott's millions of dollars in TV ads, McCollum looks vulnerable. It's a stunning shift for a seasoned politician who seemed to have a lock on the race just two months ago.
Supporters fault McCollum's TV message, inability to connect with an angry electorate, fundraising shortcomings and a dated campaign style, emphasizing endorsements from establishment figures such as Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney at a time when voters are alienated.
In an interview, McCollum acknowledged "angst" among supporters but predicted he would triumph as the only "battle-tested" Republican running for governor.
"The person who has a record for everybody to see is going to be there," McCollum said. "On the other hand, there's a fellow (Scott) that people don't know who he is, and when they find out who he is, it's not going to be a pretty picture."
But he has some convincing to do in his own camp.
"To put it in marketing terms, McCollum's brand is not well-identified despite a long career of service to Florida," said Greg Truax, a Tampa volunteer who has donated to McCollum's campaign. "General McCollum needs to communicate the fundamental points of difference with Rick Scott."
A potentially big threat is that some Republicans perceive Scott as more conservative, especially on immigration.
"That is a hot-button issue for Republican voters," Truax said. "He's combined an effective message with a tremendous amount of money."
Scott's TV ads, where the candidate talks straight into the camera, appear sharper and more engaging than McCollum's, said Truax. The activist suggested McCollum move his campaign operation to Orlando to get away from the "echo chamber" of Tallahassee insiders.
McCollum and two committees with ties to his campaign are counterpunching with anti-Scott TV ads emphasizing the $1.7 billion Medicare fraud fine stemming from Scott's tenure as CEO of Columbia/HCA. At the same time, Scott is challenging McCollum to four statewide debates.
Another concern: fundraising. Scott's polling advantage could make it harder for McCollum to raise money at a key juncture in the campaign, with the Aug. 24 primary 10 weeks away.
If McCollum can't close that gap in a hurry, "All of the traditional donors will have to start looking at what they have been doing," said Steve Madden, a lobbyist who serves on McCollum's statewide finance team. "You have to start looking at who has the most potential viability to win. . . . The majority of voters want to be with the winner — that's our core personality trait."
McCollum, 65, raised nearly $5 million through March. Scott, 57, has spent an estimated $15 million of his personal fortune. If he exceeds $19.7 million, Florida's public campaign financing system will match for McCollum every dollar Scott spends over the cap.
"We're waiting, and have waited, to spend our resources, which are much more limited," McCollum said.
Lobbyist and strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, who helped mastermind Republican Bob Martinez's winning campaign for governor in 1986, marveled at the "nerve" of Scott to have "scammed the taxpayers" while in business and now "taking that money and trying to scam them again." But Stipanovich added that McCollum is not a dynamic candidate.
"McCollum is not cut out of the same bolt of cloth as Jeb Bush or Charlie Crist or Lawton Chiles," he said.
Orlando lawyer Fred Leonhardt, another member of McCollum's finance team, said the public's hunger for a "fresh face" not tied to political elites complicates the task for McCollum, a fixture on the political stage for three decades whose brochure states: "I have dedicated most of my adult life to public service."
"A new and fresh candidate who offers himself for public service and is willing to self-finance is an attractive alternative to look at," said Leonhardt, who predicted that as the election draws closer, Republicans will return to McCollum's fold.
Others are more skeptical.
"I don't know whether Bill McCollum is just unlucky as hell or is a poor statewide candidate, because he's a smart, likable guy," said former state GOP chairman Tom Slade. "I see a lot of long faces among people who have been strong McCollum supporters."
Slade was a member of McCollum's statewide finance committee but left to support state Sen. Paula Dockery, who quit the race.
This is the third statewide race in four tries where McCollum's fortunes were darkened by factors beyond his control.
Only in 2006, when he won the Cabinet post of attorney general, did the Brooksville native find statewide victory after two decades in Congress.
In 2000, then-Gov. Jeb Bush and Republican leaders cleared the field and handed McCollum the nomination for U.S. Senate, but he lost to Democrat Bill Nelson on the same ballot in which George W. Bush won Florida by 537 votes.
In 2004, McCollum's Senate dreams were dashed again when the White House recruited Mel Martinez to boost Hispanic turnout for Bush's re-election. Martinez won and quit the Senate nearly a year ago.
"His timing has just been awful," Slade said. "Unless he can drag a few rabbits out of his hat, McCollum is in for a rather dismal tomorrow."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.