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State GOP race for U.S. Senate full of surprises

With Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan again eyeing the race to fill Sen. Connie Mack's seat, the GOP chair says three's a crowd.

Five months after Republican Connie Mack announced he would not seek re-election to the U.S. Senate, there are two surprises in a race where the potential candidates have dwindled from a herd to a handful.

The first: U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum of Altamonte Springs has aggressively moved to the forefront among the Republicans. He filled his campaign account with more than $1.3-million by the end of June, hired seven campaign staffers and several consultants, created a campaign Web site and signed on a number of well-known fundraisers.

The second: Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher, a veteran of five statewide races, has been so quiet that his own campaign treasurer recently wondered whether he still planned to run. Gallagher said last week that he is in the race, but would not say how much money he's raised, how many staffers he's hired or when he would formally announce.

Now there is the possibility that Republicans could hit the trifecta in unexpected developments.

Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, a favorite of conservatives and many moderate Republicans who aren't enthusiastic about McCollum or Gallagher, is taking another look at the Senate race. That has frozen in place some prominent Republican fundraisers.

"A lot of people are waiting to see what Brogan is going to do," said Fort Lauderdale cardiologist Zachariah P. Zachariah, who has spoken to both Gallagher and McCollum. "I told them both the same thing. I want to see what the field of candidates is before I make up my mind."

Three Republican candidates would be a crowd in the eyes of state GOP chairman Al Cardenas. He said last week that he has told McCollum, Gallagher and Brogan that he wants no more than two of them to run.

The winner of a two-person primary in September 2000 would have roughly 60 days until the general election to focus on Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson, the only big-name Democrat in the race. In a three-way primary it is possible no candidate would win more than half the vote, forcing a runoff election and leaving just 30 days to focus on the general election.

Florida's political history is littered with candidates, usually Democrats, too battered and broke after a runoff to win a general election. Cardenas is determined that Republicans avoid that scenario in the Senate race.

"All three are good," he said of McCollum, Gallagher and Brogan. "But we only want two very good candidates running."

Bill McCollum

One of those candidates is expected to be McCollum, whose congressional district includes Disney World and most of Orlando.

McCollum formally announced for the Senate in May, returning to his childhood home in Hernando County. He raised more than $883,000 by June 30 and transferred an additional $775,000 from his existing House campaign account.

To lend more credibility to his campaign, McCollum also released a list of prominent fundraisers and business executives on his statewide finance committee.

The campaign co-chairs are Betty Sembler, wife of St. Petersburg area developer and national GOP finance chairman Mel Sembler, and Jeanie Austin of Orlando, former state Republican chair and national party co-chair.

"We've got a lot of momentum," said McCollum, who will spend Congress' August recess campaigning and raising money across the state. "I am in it for the long haul."

Gallagher is unimpressed.

"Big deal," he said of McCollum's public relations push. "Bill needs to do that. When you are one of 23 (members of Congress from Florida), you need to get moving early."

Besides building support for his first statewide campaign, McCollum faces another challenge. He was one of the House managers for President Clinton's impeachment trial. Many Republicans and Democrats wonder whether McCollum can reach beyond Florida's most conservative voters.

A recent opinion poll by the non-partisan Florida Voter magazine found 28 percent of voters have a negative opinion of McCollum. That rating, which McCollum called an "aberration," was more than twice as high as Gallagher's or Nelson's.

"With McCollum, you are either going to be a supporter or you are not _ there's no middle ground," said Jim Kane, Florida Voter editor. "For somebody who hasn't been in a mudslinging battle for a while, a 28 percent negative rating is on the high side for him and could spell trouble in the general election."

With McCollum running hard, there is not room for both Gallagher and Brogan in Cardenas' vision of a two-person Republican primary.

Tom Gallagher

Gallagher's efforts are so low-key that Kane did not include him in a poll released last month that showed Nelson with a 14-point lead over McCollum. When Gallagher accepted an invitation _ extended by Austin before she endorsed McCollum _ and spoke at a Fort Myers junior college commencement about three weeks ago, Austin said, "people there weren't aware that he was running."

About the same time, Gallagher telephoned former state Sen. Curt Kiser after Kiser told Gallagher staffers that he "couldn't tell whether Tom was running or not." Kiser is Gallagher's campaign treasurer, longtime friend and running mate in his unsuccessful governor's race in 1994.

"He didn't sound like he was in any rush to make a big splash," said Kiser, who said Gallagher told him he was quietly lining up support.

Because he did not formally campaign or solicit support, Gallagher did not have to file a campaign finance report last month. Richard Pinsky, a veteran of previous Gallagher campaigns, said about $20,000 came in and nothing was spent.

With Gallagher busy with education reforms during and after the legislative session, Pinsky said, there wasn't time to raise enough money to compare favorably with McCollum's public fundraising report.

But Nelson also waited until after the legislative session ended in late April to start seriously raising money. He raised more than $887,000 by the end of June.

"I'm going to proceed just exactly the way we are trying to do it," Nelson said. "I don't know what is going to happen on the Republican side."

Gallagher, who would be a moderate alternative to McCollum, and his supporters note his campaigns often start late.

"We set a schedule, and we're on it," said Gallagher, who brushed off Cardenas' call for a two-candidate primary. "His real preference is to have one, I'm sure. Unfortunately, the chairman can't control what happens in a primary."

Frank Brogan

Brogan's decision could affect Gallagher's thinking.

Several weeks after Brogan's wife died of cancer in June, the lieutenant governor said he would re-examine the possibility of entering the Senate race. With a high-profile job in Tallahassee and quick access to Gov. Jeb Bush's fundraising network, he may spend several months considering his options.

"The only advice I have given him is to take his time in making a decision, which I think he is doing," Bush said last week. "I love Frank Brogan like a brother and my advice has been brotherly not political."

Gallagher, who has not talked to Brogan recently about the Senate race, would not say what he would do if Brogan decides to run.

"Anybody's decision to get in a race or to get out of a race always affects what you do," said Gallagher, who ran for education commissioner last year only because Brogan left the job to become Bush's running mate. "I don't think it's time to talk to him about the race."