“There’s one principle issue in my race,” says Bill McCollum, a former congressman pursuing the GOP Senate nomination in Florida. “I’m the candidate who doesn’t need on-the-job training.”
But what about Mel Martinez, who was President Bush’s housing secretary until resigning to run for the Senate himself? Isn’t he a political veteran who has operated at the highest levels of government?
“That depends on whether Florida wants its next senator to be an expert on affordable housing or an expert on terrorism.”
McCollum certainly does have that going for him–he is a bonafide expert on terrorism, having taken up the issue long before it seemed to matter. Indeed, McCollum plays a bit part in the opening pages of Richard Miniter’s best-selling book Losing Bin Laden; Miniter casts him as a congressional Cassandra who warned of terrorism but was ignored by the Clinton administration (and just about everybody else, for that matter) in the 1990s.
The 60-year-old McCollum is one of just a few politicians whose stock arguably rose following September 11. And that’s just what he needed, given that he was coming off a tough loss a year earlier in a race for an open Senate. Although George W. Bush carried Florida by the slightest of margins, McCollum trailed his opponent, Bill Nelson, by a couple of points. The seat, formerly held by Connie Mack, switched from R to D–and a lot of Washington Republicans felt McCollum had let them down in a contest against a lackluster rival.
“People say I ran against a weak candidate,” says McCollum. “I didn’t. He was a much better candidate than people realize.”
Whatever the truth, McCollum is back–and he’s currently leading a pack of Republicans, including Martinez, who also want the GOP Senate nomination. One recent poll showed McCollum leading the field with 23 percent, followed by Martinez at 19 percent, businessman Doug Gallagher at 15 percent, and Florida House speaker Johnnie Byrd at 8 percent. The primary falls on August 31, the second day of the Republican National Convention in New York City.
During a visit to NR’s Washington office in July, McCollum clearly saw Martinez as his main rival. Earlier this year, Martinez went on a fundraising tear, collecting more campaign cash than his foes. So far, this hasn’t translated into the frontrunner status that many anticipated. In the polls, McCollum has remained steadily in first, while Martinez has staked a second-place slot within striking distance of McCollum but always trailing.
Much can happen in the next couple of weeks, of course. The goal is to prevail on Election Day, not to lead the polls in the run-up to it. But right now, McCollum is about as well positioned as possible. He may very well become the GOP nominee to take on (in all probability) either education official Betty Castor or congressman Peter Deutsch.
McCollum is certainly vulnerable. Last month, he lost the National Right to Life endorsement that he had carried in previous elections. “I’ve never changed my views,” he says. That may be true, though the issue of embryo research has achieved a new prominence in pro-life circles. “I’m not for stem-cell research that takes life,” says McCollum. “I also don’t think embryos should be created for research purposes. But I do think that fertilized eggs slated for destruction should be available. I don’t think that’s life. It’s not viable. I think that’s a pro-life position.”
National Right to Life believes differently, and threw its support behind Byrd and Martinez.
McCollum isn’t reluctant to handicap the primary election, for which there is no runoff–it’s all or nothing on the last day of August. “The winner will take about 35 percent of the vote,” he says. He thinks he’ll finish first and Martinez second. “Gallagher has the most potential to gain. I suspect he winds up third. Byrd has hit a plateau in the high single digits, around 8 or 9 percent.”
Many Washington Republicans–including, it is widely presumed, the White House–consider Martinez the better general-election candidate. McCollum maintains that’s not true. “I’ve run statewide before,” he says. “Martinez has never been in a competitive race of his own.” In 1998, Martinez won election as the chairman of Orange County. McCollum says this doesn’t count because it was a nonpartisan race and not competitive. In 1994, Martinez ran for lieutenant governor with Ken Connor (now of the Family Research Council); the Connor-Martinez ticket finished fifth in the GOP primary.
“I just don’t follow the logic that he’s more electable,” says McCollum. “This year I plan on running ahead of the president.”