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McCollum trounces Scott in Republican straw poll in Pinellas

PINELLAS PARK — Hundreds came to vote Sunday in the best election a political party could buy.

An annual picnic by the Republican Party of Pinellas County featured a $20-a-vote straw poll, drawing a range of candidates including Florida gubernatorial rivals Bill McCollum and Rick Scott.

Popular with many of the party activists dominating the crowd, McCollum walloped Scott, 209 to 80. A lesser-known candidate, Michael McCalister of Plant City, received 15 votes.

"I think he's been a conservative," Gail Hebert, 67, of St. Petersburg said of McCollum.

Of Scott, "I looked at him, but I didn't like what I saw," said Hebert, who chaired the event.

Victory Picnic 2010 — actually held indoors at Banquet Masters II — also brought out Florida Senate President Jeff Atwater, running unopposed in the primary for state chief financial officer, and attorney general candidate Pam Bondi of Tampa, who easily won with 221 votes against Holly Benson (37) and Jeff Kottkamp (42) in her primary poll.

Voters in the crowd, pegged at 500 by party officials, were encouraged to vote once, though party chairman Jay Beyrouti said they wouldn't be stopped from casting more ballots.

The event allowed candidates to mix with many of the most active volunteers in a key place before the Aug. 24 primary.

The bay area is rich in voters, and Pinellas often has been a "bellwether," said McCollum.

"These are the events that decide the election," Scott said.

Yet candidates also face an election in which many people have voted early. Most in the room had a favorite candidate.

So far, 52,103 people in Pinellas have voted by mail, or 22 percent of the people requesting mail ballots. Another 1,088 people have voted early. In Hills­borough County, 9,548 people had voted early as of Saturday.

McCollum and Scott have blistered each other in advertising, but their brief statements Sunday only grazed those attacks.

Scott, a former health care executive, said the race was between a "Tallahassee insider and a conservative outsider," promising to grow jobs.

McCollum, Florida's attorney general, emphasized experience, down to when he won a congressional seat for a district with north Pinellas voters decades ago. Afterward with reporters, McCollum said Scott still needs to explain his business record. Scott was chief executive of Columbia/HCA, the hospital giant fined $1.7 billion for Medicare fraud.

"I'll be there as a conservative. My opponent, he's been running from his record," McCollum told the crowd.

The event's proceeds — estimated by Beyrouti near $10,000 — will help the county party in the Nov. 2 general election.

Native son Gov. Charlie Crist and his no-party bid for U.S. Senate had no presence inside the ballroom, where Republican Marco Rubio carried his primary with 256 votes.

But outside as guests left, a man had posted Crist placards along the driveway.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

McCollum trounces Scott in Republican straw poll in Pinellas 08/15/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 23, 2010 1:26pm]
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