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McCollum downplays House fame in Senate bid

For a while there, you could hardly turn on the television without seeing local product Bill McCollum, who grew up in Brooksville in Hernando County.

He was on C-SPAN. He was on the network news. He was on the weekend political shows. One night, he was on three networks in a row, a real trifecta (not my line, but I wish it were) for a Washington politician.

Why? Because as a veteran Republican in the U.S. House, McCollum was one of the earliest, most vocal and most constant advocates of the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, and was one of the 13 prosecutors at his trial.

But that is all a distant memory. These days, McCollum is occupied with becoming your next U.S. senator. He wants to re-

place Connie Mack, who is retiring next year. His chances are more than reasonable.

McCollum, 55, lives in Altamonte Springs and represents the Orlando area in Congress. He passed through Tampa Thursday on his way around the state drumming up money and support.

McCollum said he didn't think impeachment would affect his Senate race much one way or the other. It didn't sound like he plans to make a big deal of it, except for general statements about character.

McCollum's basic pitch is that he would have a "running start" in representing Florida. He has been in the House since 1980 (at that time, his district included Pasco County) and says he would already have the recognition and respect of the Senate.

McCollum talks about getting Florida's "fair share" of federal dollars. He is the chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on crime, and has backed longer prison sentences and tougher anti-drug laws, especially when it comes to other Western Hemisphere nations.

He is a free trader who voted for NAFTA but felt burned by Mexico's later illegal dumping of tomatoes and other products on Florida. He is a strong supporter of the major tax cuts just passed by the House and sure to be vetoed by President Clinton. He has resisted the strictest limits proposed for gun shows and has promoted looser concealed-weapons laws, but supports restrictions such as requiring gun safety locks.

Although considered quite conservative, McCollum talks more moderately. He has no competition for the most conservative primary voters. His only active major Republican opponent is the moderate Tom Gallagher, the state's education commissioner.

He comes across better in person than he does on television, but he is not exactly a relaxed guy. He is one of those fellows who can take off his suit jacket and look like he's still wearing it. I laughed when he described a recent visit to the Panhandle, where Mr. Suburban Orlando engaged in the eating of opossum. ("It actually wasn't bad," he grinned.)

If, say, Jesse Ventura were running against McCollum, McCollum would be vulnerable to being painted as a career Washington politician. It rings hollow for a guy who's been in office 20 years to be advocating 12-year term limits, while raking up campaign cash. On the other hand, Gallagher seems intent on hopping from office to office, and nobody can confuse career politician Bill Nelson with Jimmy Stewart.

The big question is whether Gov. Jeb Bush's No. 2, Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, gets into the Republican race. Some influential Republicans are holding back their support to see. As for Gallagher, he appears to be behind in money and organization, but he has proven he can win statewide elections and can't be counted out.

Finally, there is the likely Democratic nominee Nelson, whom McCollum has known since high school. It would be fun to see whether the Democrats used impeachment, guns or other national issues against McCollum. Maybe you are surprised to hear the race of Stiff vs. Stiffer described as "fun," but then, I always am optimistic about these things.