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GOP governor's race may have turned on third candidate's strong showing

TALLAHASSEE — One of the most intriguing questions to emerge from Tuesday's election results: Who is Mike McCalister?

The third wheel in the hotly contested Republican primary for governor took a whopping 10 percent of the vote — whopping because he didn't run a single advertisement, barely registered in any poll and spent less than $8,000.

The answer: a spoiler.

McCalister's vote total — 130,272 — was more than three times the 37,684-vote edge that gave Rick Scott his victory over Bill McCollum.

"There were just voters who couldn't make up their minds," said Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, who cited the plethora of negative advertising in the race. "He became a none-of-the-above choice."

That is what made Ken Guarino of Miami pick him.

"I voted for McCalister knowing nothing about him, because Scott is a crook and McCollum is just more of the same," Guarino told the Miami Herald.

McCalister, 58, a retired Army colonel and professor who lives outside Plant City, vehemently rejects the assertion he served as a protest vote.

"This isn't a fluke," he said in an interview. "I don't think I was the spoiler. I think people were looking for an alternative, and I was another alternative."

If he's right, McCalister's surprise showing suggests third-party candidates in November could attract more support than expected and sway the outcome of other races.

A day after he tallied his 130,272 votes, McCalister's phone rang constantly as people called to ask: Who are you?

This irritated him to no end. He blamed the media for ignoring him. His theory: The media "tried to hide" him because he didn't spend money advertising with television and newspapers like his opponents, McCollum and Scott, the winner who spent $50 million on his campaign.

Any attempt to dispute McCalister's claim and note that he registered 3 percent or less in statewide polls only made him madder. "I'm not a crybaby. I'm talking about reality and fact," he said "Had people felt I could have won, I would have had more than 10 percent. … The reality is, I was the most qualified candidate and still am."

McCalister said he ran a relentless campaign, traveling the state for two months talking to Republican groups and tea party organizations about his lengthy resume steeped in economics, strategic planning, national security and executive leadership.

He asserts he won his votes on his message. "What the people started to realize is, this guy really does know his stuff, it's not a political campaign based on a marketing campaign," McCalister said.

Cindy Lucas, the chairwoman of the Martin County 9/12 Tea Party, said McCalister impressed people when he spoke to her group. "We thought he has some fresh ideas," she said.

But in the end, her vote for him also served a broader purpose.

"I figured, let's send a message to the Florida Republican Party," Lucas said. "If they keep putting candidates on the ballot we don't like, we won't vote for them."

It's hard to know whether he took votes away from McCollum, the state's attorney general, and helped Scott win. But the 37,684-vote margin of victory left questions.

McCalister, who watched the results at home by himself, pulled 15 percent or more in nine counties, with his best showing at 17 percent in Putnam County in north-central Florida.

Looked at another way, McCalister spent less than 6 cents per vote, while Scott's votes cost him more than $80 apiece.

McCalister said he probably siphoned more votes from Scott.

"I don't think I cost Bill McCollum the election," he said.

McCollum's camp didn't want to speculate on his impact.

Asked about Scott, McCalister didn't want to say anything.

"When I went around, I had a pledge: We didn't talk about the other two candidates," he said. "That's why I got the votes."

John Frank can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

GOP governor's race may have turned on third candidate's strong showing 08/25/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 25, 2010 10:22pm]
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