Bill McCollum, Rick Scott and other rivals criss-cross state in final scrum for votes

TAMPA

Florida's top Republican contenders for governor rarely debated, so a chance encounter on the last day of the campaign between the two antagonists offered a chilly finale to their bruising rivalry.

It happened Monday at Tampa International Airport, reflecting the fervent, frenetic push by Attorney General Bill McCollum and health care executive Rick Scott before Tuesday's primary.

Scott, on his way to West Palm Beach, strode by McCollum without a word. McCollum, flying to Orlando, didn't make eye contact.

In the other bitterly contested race at the top of the ballot, Democratic Senate candidates Kendrick Meek and Jeff Greene both stumped in Tampa and Orlando, but managed to avoid crossing paths. Meek is planning to hit a Miami bus terminal and union hall before dawn Tuesday.

A record-setting 361,615 voters participated in early voting through Sunday, but election officials cautioned that the level of interest may demonstrate the convenience of voting before Election Day, not a higher-than-expected overall turnout. Compared to the 2006 primary, when two competitive primary battles for governor topped the ballot, early voting is up 40 percent.

The trend toward early voting could affect the election's outcome. Scott's camp, which heavily pushed supporters toward early and absentee voting, is hoping voters chose him before McCollum's latest round of attacks. The Scott campaign released a statement from strategist Tony Fabrizio, who predicted a whopping 41 percent Republican turnout.

"People are showing up,'' said Scott, a health care executive who has never run for office before. "People care about this race because they want change. … So it's a great sign for me."

In the last midterm primary election in 2006, about 20 percent of the voters cast ballots. Another low turnout election, with only the most reliable Republican and Democratic voters going to the polls, would appear to favor veteran politicians like McCollum and Meek.

A Quinnipiac University survey released Monday showed McCollum's lead narrowing to 39-35 percent against Scott. Meek has surged to a 39-29 percent lead over Greene among likely Democratic voters.

But if the large chunk of undecided voters show up Tuesday, "any verdict is possible,'' said Quinnipiac pollster Peter A. Brown. The poll found that 22 percent of Republicans and 28 percent of Democrats were still on the fence. The poll of 771 Republican voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The survey of 757 Democratic likely primary voters has a 3.6 percent margin of error.

McCollum began the last day of the primary campaign at the Floridian restaurant in Fort Lauderdale before flying across the state for a grass roots event at Five Guys, a burger joint on Tampa's West Kennedy Boulevard.

As a steady midday rain fell, the choice of the restaurant was apt: Only about five guys were there to root for McCollum, along with a handful of women. They donned Team McCollum T-shirts and formed a backdrop while the candidate fielded questions.

"The voters are going to go out, and I trust their judgment," McCollum said, parroting one of his TV ads. "I believe they are going to make the decision based upon the fact that I have a record that they can see.''

In the McCollum camp, signs were abundant that a Scott victory would make it hard to unify the Republicans in November. Angela Panezze, 33, a Hillsborough GOP activist who does health care marketing, says she can't support Scott. "If it comes down to it, I've got to say that I probably would vote for (Democrat) Alex Sink," she said.

As a light drizzle fell, McCollum stood at Dale Mabry Highway and Kennedy Boulevard, where he held a blue McCollum sign emblazoned with "I need your vote." Scott was doing the same a couple of miles north.

McCollum said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, will be at his headquarters hotel Tuesday night near Orlando. If McCollum wins, Barbour will headline a Republican Party "Victory Committee" fund-raising dinner Wednesday night in Orlando.

McCollum is an old-fashioned politician who puts a lot of faith in the value of big-name endorsements, and he kept citing them down to the wire: Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuilani and Dick Armey.

Scott pitched himself as the self-made businessman fighting the political establishment, which has fought back by pouring about $4.8 million into two new political committees McCollum established in June.

"The thing that surprised me about this race is how much the special interests are involved," Scott said. He also stepped up his criticism of the GOP leadership, after an e-mail Sunday from state party chairman John Thrasher said Scott has "orchestrated a multifaceted campaign of misinformation in an effort to mislead Florida voters.''

Scott is running TV and print ads that accuse McCollum of covering up wrongdoing by former state party chairman Jim Greer.

"Clearly, he's biased," Scott said of Thrasher. "They didn't want to have a primary.''

Ougunned on television by his billionaire rival, Meek sought some free publicity in interviews with two disparate audiences, going to the set of Tampa Bay shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem and doing a more formal live satellite interview with MSNBC's Chuck Todd.

Meek hit Greene for making millions of dollars through credit default swaps, a complex financial investment that allowed Greene to bet against risky mortgages bundled into bonds.

"You don't put your dollars against Floridians and then turn around and use those same dollars and say 'Hey, I'm going to be for you,' " Meek said.

As Meek was leaving Tampa for Orlando, Jeff Greene was just flying in. In a visit to Tampa's Alessi Bakery, he dismissed a question from reporters about whether he was campaigning hard enough, noting that he was out shaking hands at his mothers' West Palm Beach retirement condominium until 10:30 p.m. Sunday.

"We have some very important issues facing Florida today and I'm telling you if the people of Florida give me the chance … I will fight,'' Greene said. "I will create jobs and get results like they've never seen before."

Times/Herald staff writers Aaron Sharockman and Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.

To see video of the candidates in Tampa, and the Scott and McCollum encounter at Tampa International Airport, go to Tampabay.com/video. And for information on all of the primary election candidates, go to Tampabay.com/KYC2010.

Bill McCollum, Rick Scott and other rivals criss-cross state in final scrum for votes 08/23/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 24, 2010 9:34am]

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