ORLANDO — Bill McCollum jumped into the governor's race Monday, sounding less like the hard-edged conservative of old campaigns and more like Mr. Bi-partisan.
"The hallmark of a McCollum administration will be access and inclusion," the Republican attorney general said, surrounded by state GOP leaders. "This administration will be one that doesn't look at the partisan label."
With Republican legislative leaders and the state chairman at his side at an Orlando hotel, the long-expected announcement was meant to show that the GOP establishment is behind McCollum even as state Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson continues to mull a run in 2010.
State Republican chairman Jim Greer said he will push the state party to formally endorse McCollum in July.
"I am fully confident as chairman of the party that we will be unified,'' said Greer, who has taken considerable criticism from grass roots activists lately for trying to kill former state House Speaker Marco Rubio's campaign for the U.S. Senate against fellow Republican Charlie Crist.
Bronson, who skipped McCollum's announcement, was unimpressed with Greer's efforts to clear the field. "That is not the standard position of the head of the Republican Party. …What is that going to do? Is that going to stimulate people to get involved? I doubt it,'' said Bronson, acknowledging his wife is discouraging him from running.
McCollum, 64, served two decades in Congress until 2000, when he ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate against Democrat Bill Nelson. McCollum ran again in 2004, losing to Mel Martinez in the GOP primary, and then was elected attorney general in 2006.
While hardly a fresh face on the Florida political scene, allies say McCollum is the kind of tested candidate and steady, reliable leader voters can embrace when Florida is mired in economic problems.
"This is a time when you need experience," said state Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, contrasting McCollum to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink, a longtime banking executive now in the middle of her first term as the state's chief financial officer. "When times are tough you need someone who's been in the fire before."
Through most of his political career McCollum was involved in the most partisan fights in Congress, from Iran-Contra to the impeachment of Bill Clinton. But Monday he sounded like a Charlie Crist moderate, talking about protecting the environment and seeking out diversity of opinion.
Sink's campaign shrugged off McCollum's entry into the race. "It's not surprising that Bill McCollum is running for office again,'' spokeswoman Tara Klimek said. "He's been in politics for at least 32 years. This is his career."
Democrats view Sink as their biggest new star, but she is less known than McCollum. About 70 percent of voters know of McCollum, compared with 40 percent for Sink, according to Republican polling. A recent Mason-Dixon poll showed a dead heat between the two for governor.
Republicans will try to define Sink negatively, and they have signaled a major avenue of attack will be her career in banking. She retired as president of Bank of America in Florida in 2000.
"Her business background is in banking, certainly a sector that has had tremendous problems and some would say has contributed to the problems both statewide, nationally and globally that we've experienced,'' said state Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, who is in line to become the next Florida House speaker.
Nearby stood Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, a banker who is expected to announce his candidacy for chief financial officer today. In light of the current discussion, it raises the question of whether a background in banking is more liability than asset.
"Let's hope not,'' he said, laughing. "I don't see that, I really don't. People are going to be focusing on the issues out in front of Florida, not the issues behind, and what may be in a candidate's past."