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Florida poised to buck antiestablishment revolt

TALLAHASSEE — Conventional wisdom for this election year is voters will exorcise incumbents, purge weak-hearted partisans and send an insurgent message to those in power.

But don't expect a wholesale revolt in today's primaries in Florida, where fear of the unknown appears to trump the desire for change.

"The psychology is one that may bring voters back to the known candidate," said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor. "Negative campaigns raise questions and tend to give the advantage to incumbents."

A day ahead of the primary, polls tightened in the U.S. Senate and governor races, but the two officeholders were still leading.

Attorney General Bill McCollum, who spent 20 years in Congress, is leading the GOP primary for governor against rival Rick Scott, a political novice who has put $50 million of his own money into the race. In the Democratic U.S. Senate race, congressman Kendrick Meek tops Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene, who has never held elective office.

"This may be the year of the outsider nationally, but at least in terms of the Florida primaries, the insiders seem to be doing pretty well," said Peter Brown, a Quinnipiac University pollster.

The difference is reflected in the mind-set of voters. A month ago, a Quinnipiac poll found likely voters preferred outsiders to experience in the governor's race by a 26-point margin. But last week, the gap closed to just 7 percentage points.

"Most voters are anti-incompetence, not anti-incumbent," said David Beattie, a Democratic consultant. "When they feel all they're getting is political platitudes and no results or corruption, it's not 'throw all the bums out,' it's 'throw out the ones that aren't doing their jobs.' "

At the national level, this campaign season is defined as antieverything — anti-insider, anti-Washington, anti-Obama, antiestablishment — all fueled by a weak economy and general distaste for politics as usual. Surveys show as many as 6 in 10 voters support a fresh face on the ballot.

The volatile mood led to the overthrow of a handful of prominent lawmakers, including U.S. Sens. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania and Bob Bennett in Utah, and a victory for insurgent Rand Paul in the Kentucky Senate race. Likewise, Republicans helped jettison Florida Gov. Charlie Crist from the party, backing Marco Rubio and forcing Crist to run as an independent for the U.S. Senate.

Florida candidates at every level have attempted to tap the fervor by tying opponents to the disgust with Washington.

In the governor's race, McCollum linked Scott to President Barack Obama's economic stimulus and Scott labeled McCollum a career politician. On the Democratic side, Greene claimed Meek did favors for the special interests who gave him money.

Scott and Greene dominated their respective races earlier this summer, claiming significant leads in the polls as they invested their personal fortunes in massive television advertising campaigns.

But the power of incumbency has helped rescue McCollum and Meek, who tapped their respective political parties for money, staff and strategy.

McCollum responded with endorsements from Republican Party leaders like Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee. And special interests contributed millions to attack Scott and highlight his questionable business record.

Likewise in the Senate race, Meek countered with endorsements from Bill Clinton and Obama and used a grass roots network built from the party base to rally support.

Today's election results, if the numbers hold, are likely to show that being an outsider isn't enough — newcomers need to give voters more reasons to earn their support, said Brown, the pollster. And while money can help make the race close, it doesn't compensate for flaws.

"If you've got problems in your history, it's deadly," said Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant supporting McCollum. "Voters have become very sensitive to that."

Scott can't escape questions about his tenure as CEO of Columbia/HCA amid a federal criminal investigation concerning fraudulent Medicare and Medicaid billing practices. The hospital chain paid a record $1.7 billion fine to settle the case. And Greene faces concerns about betting on the subprime mortgage market, his friendship to boxer and convicted rapist Mike Tyson, and stories of crazy parties aboard his yacht.

"It's less repudiation of outsiders as much as it is Florida voters coming to their senses," said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist. "I think it's hard to draw any big conclusions."

Like many voters, Karin Hoffman, a tea party activist in South Florida, felt inclined toward Scott. "It's the tea party's natural heart to get rid of all incumbents," she said.

But she is supporting McCollum, saying his years as a politician gave him "a better depth of knowledge to issues and solutions" compared to Scott's baggage.

"We do not give an immediate pass to those who are new," she said. "Even though we are antiestablishment … it's not a knee jerk reaction."

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

Florida poised to buck antiestablishment revolt 08/23/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 24, 2010 8:35am]
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