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In the homestretch, Florida candidates fan out, trade more attacks

Candidates in the homestretch of tumultuous races for governor and the U.S. Senate fanned out Saturday across Florida, with once-vulnerable political insiders surging in the polls and mega-rich outsiders struggling to regain momentum before Tuesday's election.

In the Republican gubernatorial race, Attorney General Bill McCollum dredged up an old deposition to continue his tarring of opponent Rick Scott as a shady businessman. Scott, also campaigning in North Florida, dismissed the attack and countered that McCollum was in hock to special interests and ransacking state party coffers to keep his campaign afloat.

In the Democratic Senate contest, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek rallied voters in Jacksonville and condemned a harsh new mailing in which rival Jeff Greene accuses him of "bland promises" on Israel. Greene stood by the ad and touted his political independence in appearances before a heavily Jewish crowd at a Broward County diner and a Hispanic-oriented trade show in Kissimmee.

The latest polls show Greene and Scott slipping out of their front-running spots after weeks of outgunning their opponents with explosive television spots and mailings. A Mason-Dixon poll released Saturday found McCollum now leads Scott 45-36 percent, while Meek has opened up a 42-30 percent lead over Greene.

Meek, who is vying to be Florida's first African-American senator, is running strong among black voters, according to the survey. McCollum's best showing is in southeast Florida, where he holds a wide advantage among Hispanic voters in Miami.

McCollum credited his surge to Scott's ducking of debates and newspaper editorial boards.

"I'm proud of my record. The guy on the other side is running from his," McCollum said at the Shrimp Boat restaurant in Panama City.

Scott has spent $39.4 million to date, roughly five times as much as McCollum. Scott emptied $12 million out of his wallet for the final leg, while McCollum raised only $163,000 from Aug. 7 to Aug. 19.

McCollum has gotten a hand, however, from a political committee flush with $4.7 million from some of the heaviest hitters in Tallahassee, from U.S. Sugar to Progress Energy.

"You wouldn't invest those dollars as a company unless you thought you were going to get an unbelievable return," Scott said in Panama City.

The pro-McCollum Florida First Initiative has dispatched a sport utility vehicle emblazoned with "Rick Scott: Release the Deposition" to follow the Naples executive wherever he goes. Dressed as a doctor and black-and-white-striped jail bird, the driver and passenger wave signs bashing Scott for refusing to release a deposition he gave in a lawsuit involving Solantic, a chain of walk-in clinics he founded.

The same demand was made in a banner carried by an airplane flying over the exhibition game in Jacksonville between the hometown Jaguars and the Miami Dolphins, signaling that voters can expect the final days of the campaign to be unrelenting. Scott plans to take out full-page ads in newspapers statewide linking McCollum to the disgraced former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, Jim Greer.

Some voters are turned off by the mudslinging.

"I think they probably both would have done a lot better if they hadn't been blasting each other with negative stuff," said 80-year-old Quentin Boyle of Lake City. "Although when you look into Rick Scott a little bit, you find out that he has got a little baggage that he's carrying along with him. My other issue with McCollum is he's been in there for years and years and years."

Also on Saturday, the McCollum camp leaked a deposition from an unrelated 2000 case to keep up the pressure on Scott. In a software dispute with his former company, Columbia/HCA, which was under FBI investigation, Scott invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination 75 times.

Scott said McCollum is trying to distract voters.

"This is Bill McCollum, a desperate politician who knows he's going to lose," Scott said. "He can't talk about his record because he has no record. So he says, 'I'll get all my insider buddies and we'll beat up on Rick Scott.' "

Campaign finance records show that on the same day that McCollum and other parties reached an oral agreement with Florida Power & Light to freeze electricity rates until 2013, the utility company wrote a $250,000 check to a business group backing his gubernatorial bid.

FPL sent a check Monday to Florida Jobs PAC, a Chamber of Commerce-backed political action committee. That committee sent a check to another chamber-backed political committee, which then sent two checks totaling $232,000 to the Victory Group, a firm that buys television advertising for McCollum. FPL officials could not be reached for comment.

Asked Saturday if there was a connection between the settlement agreement and his campaign, McCollum said: "None whatsoever. I have never committed anything to anybody in this campaign nor in any campaign."

In the Democratic Senate race, Greene has poured about $23 million of his own money into the race so far, more than four times as much as his opponent. Meek sweated through his shirt Saturday as he stumped in Jacksonville with U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown before heading to Gainesville.

"I'm not letting up," said Meek at a get-out-the-vote fish fry. "I'm going to run through the tape."

In between campaign stops, Meek decried a new mailer that suggests he is a weak supporter of Israel and features pictures of street violence.

"It's really offensive when someone would stoop so low," said Meek, who boasts a strong pro-Israel voting record. "I'm at the point where I feel like Mr. Greene has lost all credibility in his arguments."

Greene, who spent seven months as an exchange student in Israel and speaks Hebrew, defended the mailing at a campaign event at Lester's diner in Margate.

"I think I do understand more about Israel than Kendrick Meek," said Greene, a Palm Beach billionaire and real estate mogul who has never held public office.

Over a lunch spread of turkey sandwiches and matzo ball soup paid for by the campaign, Greene told the crowd of about 85 people that they had a "clear choice between a career politician caught up in a corruption scandal and a self-made man not taking a penny of special interest money."

Meek sought federal money for a Miami developer who was later charged with fraud, but he has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

Greene's schedule Saturday was characteristically light: the stop in Broward County and a quick flight on his private Gulfstream 5 to Kissimmee. He plans to campaign Sunday in Miami Gardens and Tamarac, while Meek has eight campaign stops planned.

Greene's campaign billed his event Saturday as "a meeting with Hispanic supporters in Kissimmee," but it turned out to be a handful of Greene staffers with a campaign booth at a giant family festival sponsored by Telemundo.

"Who's Jeff Greene? Never heard of him," said Jose Burgos, 39, an insurance agent who like most other people interviewed, had no plans to vote in what is expected to be a lightly attended election.

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet, Mary Ellen Klas and John Frank contributed to this report.

In the homestretch, Florida candidates fan out, trade more attacks 08/21/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 21, 2010 9:33pm]
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