Third wheel? GOP’s Mike McCalister is on ballot with Rick Scott, Bill McCollum

Republican Governor Candidate Mike McCalister talks to the Martin County Republican Tea Party on July 30, 2010 in Stuart, FL. McCalister talked about his ideas, his plans, and his goals to help Florida become a better running state. McCalister took many questions from the Tea Party members that attended that evening's meeting. Some of the most discussed topics that night was about border safety, immigration issues, local industries, and teacher's being judged on performance. Photo by: Guy Kitchens

Republican Governor Candidate Mike McCalister talks to the Martin County Republican Tea Party on July 30, 2010 in Stuart, FL. McCalister talked about his ideas, his plans, and his goals to help Florida become a better running state. McCalister took many questions from the Tea Party members that attended that evening's meeting. Some of the most discussed topics that night was about border safety, immigration issues, local industries, and teacher's being judged on performance. Photo by: Guy Kitchens

— If you look at their biographies, there are some similarities between Rick Scott and Mike McCalister.

Each is seeking the Republican nomination for governor in this month’s primary. They both grew up in Missouri — Scott in Kansas City and McCalister in Cape Girardeau. Both have worked in the health-care industry — McCalister worked for pharmaceutical companies as both a sales representative and an educator and Scott as the CEO of one of the world’s largest hospital companies.

Neither has had previous political experience, but both feel like it isn’t unrealistic to start out a political career as governor.

“I’m applying for the job I’m qualified for,” said McCalister, 58, of Plant City.

There is one glaring difference between Scott and McCalister. Scott’s spent more than $24 million on his campaign. As of July, McCalister had spent less than $8,000.

And that is likely the difference between one man being favored by a plurality of Republican voters, who may not even know McCalister’s name or that he’s on the Aug. 24 ballot with Scott and Attorney General Bill McCollum.

There are striking differences when considering how both toured the state in July.

Scott had a tour bus with his face and slogans pasted on the side. It had office space, wireless Internet and a lounge where his family relaxed in between campaign stops.

McCalister spent part of that same week touring the Panhandle in his 2008 Chevrolet Impala. It has cup holders for his coffee and a radio to keep him company on the long drives.

“It’s just too bad,” said Stephen Howard, a friend who is helping McCalister with his campaign. “Mike’s got what it takes to be a really good governor. If he just had the money.”

Yet McCalister refuses to see his campaign as doomed or without a point. He doesn’t want to harp too much on the money, though he has had second thoughts about not accepting public financing.

“I just don’t like the idea of running a campaign with taxpayers’ money,” he said.

And he chose not to raise donations.

“You have two choices, don’t you?” said Patsy Kasen, McCalister’s longtime friend and communications director. “You can fundraise or you can be out in front of people telling them about what you can do for them.”

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When asked if he would be in Scott’s place in the polls, with a lead over McCollum, if he had $24 million to spend on advertising, McCalister is blunt.

“I’d be winning if I had $5 million to spend,” he said.

McCalister exudes the kind of confidence often found in retired military brass. Perhaps it comes from sitting across tables from three- and four-star generals while talking about ways to build the army of the future. As a colonel in the Army, McCalister worked at U.S. Central Command in Tampa and testified as an expert in front of Congressional committees on the topic of military readiness.

He isn’t shy about giving his opinions about what is wrong with Florida. But when you ask him to talk about the issues, he switches gears to his current vocation as an educator. McCalister teaches undergraduate and graduate level courses at a number of for-profit universities in Central Florida.

When he speaks, it’s often in the form of a college professor’s best friend — rhetorical questions. Standing in a classroom on the Sarasota campus of Everglades University, an offshoot of the Keiser University system where McCalister teaches M.B.A. classes, he jumps up to the white board to diagram out his thoughts.

While short on specifics, McCalister said the biggest problem facing Florida isn’t exactly the economy.

“If you fix the education system, the jobs will be there,” he said. “But what’s the first thing you have to do? Ask industry what it needs from workers.”

As McCalister sees it, Florida curriculum needs a serious overhaul to make sure students are ready for college or technical schools. To start, he’d eliminate the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), and have students taught based on the curriculum covered by the ACT, a college entrance exam.

On the whiteboard, he draws circles around “47/50,” the rank of Florida’s average ACT score against the rest of the country.

“We’re not doing a good job preparing our kids to get into a good college,” he said. “If we could just get Florida to 25th out of 50, we’d look like heroes.”

Like Scott and McCollum, the state’s attorney general and the third candidate on the ballot for the Republican nomination, McCalister sees the governor’s job as sort of a chief development officer, trolling the country and the world for companies willing to relocate to Florida.

“We’re not just competing with 50 other states for jobs,” he said. “We’re competing with China and India.”

McCalister, who said he spent some of his military career working on counter-terrorism measures, is also concerned about illegal immigration. He said he’s for bringing a law similar to the one passed in Arizona earlier this year, but with added measures to help protect Florida’s coast line.

He also said he doesn’t believe the 14th Amendment grants citizenship to people born in the United States to illegal immigrant parents.

On Thursday, while McCollum and Scott debate issues and policies on a FOX station in Tampa, McCalister will have to sit at home and watch.

“I was told I wasn’t important enough to debate,” he said.

He also wasn’t invited to participate in the Univision debate, which was taped Monday in Miami.

Ryan Duffy, spokesman for the McCollum campaign, said the attorney general was invited to the debates and had no control over who else would be invited to participate.

Neither Univision nor the FOX affiliate could provide a comment on why McCalister wasn’t allowed into the debate. But it’s customary for debate hosts to use polling data to choose which candidates to invite. McCalister isn’t charting on any of the major polls.

“There were three candidates who actually qualified to be on the ballot, but only two will be on TV,” McCalister said.

Then he comes back with another rhetorical question: “Why not let the voters make the decision?”

MORE DAILY NEWS COVERAGE ON RICK SCOTT

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