BARTOW — There’s something seamless, easy, about the way Bill McCollum walks into a room of voters.
After all, he has had 30 years to perfect it.
As he enters the homestretch of the primary election, riding a small lead in the polls over opponent Rick Scott for the first time in months, McCollum talks easily on the campaign trail. The Republican candidate for governor takes the microphone in hand to address a large room, and steps away from the podium altogether in more intimate settings.
He speaks easily with groups of people crowded around him in a great circle, throwing out well-worn applause lines: touting the lawsuit he filed opposing the requirement for mandatory health insurance coverage called for under the federal health-care reform legislation, or his work against cyber-predators as attorney general.
And if it seems like he could address a room in his sleep, much less without notes or a teleprompter, it’s because he probably could.
On the trail, he delivers roughly the same variation of the same speech, occasionally with an anecdote sprinkled in that he picked up earlier that day: about the factory employee concerned his employer can’t seem to find qualified applicants for jobs requiring simple reading and writing skills, or the factory owner who has had to lay off workers and cut pay to stay afloat.
It’s here that McCollum is at ease.
He waits to address his opponent at the end of each stump speech -- tackling the nasty accusations that have dogged McCollum since Rick Scott announced his campaign in April. He gladly takes questions that arise from Scott’s attack ads, about his use of the state plane bought by former Gov. Jeb Bush, or his historical stance on immigration.
“Setting the record straight,” he calls it.
And, he says, that record isn’t as muddy as Scott has painted it to be: he says he has used the state plane the least out of any Cabinet member in Florida, and only to fly on official business.
As for immigration, McCollum said he has always supported the controversial Arizona immigration law in the form passed by that state’s Legislature; he didn’t support an earlier version, revised a week after it was introduced, that could have encouraged racial profiling by law enforcement.
However, it is clear that McCollum is most at home not in the mud pit, slinging slime back at Scott, but in a room of friendly faces who are eager to hear what he can do for them -- and more often than not, for their grandkids.
He starts many stump speeches with this line: “I want to tell you why I’m running right now, and it goes back to (my wife) Ingrid. Ingrid and I have been married now 38 years. We have three sons, we have two grandsons, we have a third on the way -- we think’s going to be a little girl this time. And this race is about them. It’s about our children and grandchildren, your children and grandchildren, and making Florida a better place for them.”
It’s the hook on which he hangs pitches for policy and platform.
The Daily News is on the road for a week shadowing the campaign of Bill McCollum. The Daily News also has been shadowing the campaign of Rick Scott for a week. Watch naplesnews.com and the Daily News for daily reports and subsequent stories on these two GOP governor candidates who face off Aug. 24.
After hearing tea party members angry about the state of the national deficit, calling on lawmakers to leave a better legacy for their children and grandchildren, McCollum has taken this plea to heart -- at least as far as his appeals to voters go.
He talks about education, promising to pick up where Jeb Bush left off with standards for accountability, and to phase out teacher tenure, while instituting merit pay. And he says he will do all of this without allocating any additional money to education in the state.
Meanwhile, he says, he will institute policies that foster the creation of 500,000 new jobs in six years. In his plan, which he consistently says has been vetted and approved by Forbes magazine editor Steve Forbes, he calls for the elimination of sales taxes on certain high-tech products used in aerospace or engineering industries, and targeted tax cuts for certain types of businesses.
“The main job of the next governor is going to be to create jobs,” he often says. “That’s the main job.”
And he uses a lot of buzz words too: “leadership, character, integrity, records,” all lumped together.
“I would stack my record up against my opponent any day,” he says.
It is comments like these that hint at the negative nature of the race between McCollum and Scott. On the trail, some people, including supporters of McCollum, say they are simply tired of hearing the attacks.
“I believe it has been the most negative race I have ever seen in my life,” says Cindy Graves, whose husband, Bobby, helps run a factory in Jacksonville with his family. “I think the people of Florida are paying for it.”
But on the trail, McCollum makes his comments about Scott brief, addressing negative advertisements when asked, and often referring to Scott only as “my opponent” or “the other fella.”
Saturday was filled with stops at early voting sites in the stretch between Daytona Beach and Tampa. At some, reporters outnumbered supporters, with just a handful of people waving McCollum signs and sporting “Team McCollum” T-shirts.
At others, 30 or so people gathered around to hear a version of McCollum’s stump speech, abbreviated by the fact that everyone was standing in the heat a couple of hundred feet outside each polling station.
Clearly, though, something was working.
“I’m going to go vote now,” said Seth Smith, 30.
He came to McCollum’s stop at an early voting site in Bartow, from his home in the nearby town of Frostproof. Before arriving there, the registered Republican said he wasn’t really sure how he was going to vote in the gubernatorial primary.
After hearing McCollum speak, Smith was a convert.
“He actually had a strong message, talking about jobs leaving,” Smith said. “The more I heard about it, the more it helped me make up my mind.”
THE VILLAGES _ Bill McCollum is courting early voters today, starting off the third day of his statewide bus tour in The Villages, a planned 55-and-older community outside Orlando.
He spoke with a crowd of supporters outside The Villages Public Library, joined for the first time on the tour by his wife, Ingrid.
On the blistering hot morning, McCollum kept his remarks short, standing in a small, grassy field just beyond the voting line cordoning off the library from campaign signs and electioneering.
He moves on now to early voting sites in St. Petersburg, followed by Riverview and Bartow.
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