TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - Down in the polls for most of the summer and running out of money in a Florida governor's race once considered his to lose, Republican Bill McCollum's long career in public service is proving to be his albatross.
In a year when angry voters are embracing new faces, McCollum's primary opponent, wealthy businessman Rick Scott, is wielding the label career politician like a club, beating McCollum with it in endless TV commercials and two televised debates.
McCollum, the 66-year-old state attorney general and former congressman, is perplexed that he's trailed in the race despite solid credentials, a slew of endorsements and glaring questions about Scott's leadership of a hospital corporation that paid a record $1.7 billion to settle criminal charges of Medicaid and Medicare fraud.
"The way you ran Columbia/HCA, God help us if you run the state like you ran that," McCollum cracked in a debate earlier this month, referring to the hospital chain Scott built into the largest health care concern in the world in the 1990s.
Scott, who was ousted by his board amid the fraud investigation in 1997, says he wasn't aware of any criminal activity and was never charged. On the campaign trial, he acknowledges that "we could have done things better."
McCollum's campaign turned up the heat on Scott just as early voting began in Florida last week, forwarding to state law enforcement officials a doctor's complaint about billing practices at a chain of urgent care clinics Scott co-founded and pressuring him to make public a sealed video deposition he gave in a lawsuit against the clinics.
Scott flatly refused to release the deposition and called a news conference to denounce McCollum as "the Tonya Harding of Florida politics" - a reference to the Olympic figure skater who played a role in the attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan.
The next day, McCollum called a news conference to roll out a sweeping immigration bill he says is even tougher than Arizona's controversial law, hoping to put to rest repeated allegations by the Scott camp that he has flip-flopped on whether such a stringent measure was necessary in Florida.
Scott's promise to run the state like a lean, efficient business, and a summer-long barrage of attack ads on TV - he's spent more than $25 million of his own money - have paid dividends.
Joyce Walz, a 66-year-old retiree who lives in Pembroke Pines, is typical of voters who are drawn to Scott.
"As a concerned citizen of this country, I am tired of listening to political rhetoric," said Walz, who decided to vote for Scott after hearing him and McCollum speak at an event recently. "I was very impressed that we have a candidate who is very pro-business, who has big business experience and is trying to turn Florida around in a different direction from the normal political rhetoric."
Polls have shown Scott leading since the spring, but a survey released Thursday by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research suggests the race could go down to the wire. That poll had McCollum with a lead of 4 percentage points, with a third of the electorate still undecided. The primary is Aug. 24
Lacking the money to match Scott commercial-for-commercial, McCollum campaigned around the state with former Gov. Jeb Bush last week, trying to rally GOP voters with the familiar political name.
Bush suggested voters should be wary of Scott.
"Never in my mind did I imagine some guy stroking a $25 million or $30 million check out of his own bank account to run a campaign," Bush said. "People think that's a little weird. I think he has to explain why that's a legitimate way of campaigning."
The 57-year-old Scott, who lists his net worth at around $218 million, is unapologetic about his lavish spending on the campaign, which he says is necessary to get his message out. He sued the state to try to keep McCollum from getting matching taxpayer funds when Scott exceeded campaign spending limits.
"My opponent has had years to get his name recognition out there and tell what he stands for," Scott said. "I'm brand new, I've never run for office before. I've got to tell people what I believe in."
McCollum was hand-picked by state GOP leaders last year to succeed Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running for the U.S. Senate. He had money in the bank and was better known than Alex Sink, the likely Democratic nominee. Scott jumped in the race in April, offering himself up as a "conservative outsider."
"Scott had the perfect political environment to do what he has done," said Tom Slade, a former chairman of the state Republican Party who hasn't endorsed either candidate in the primary. "Never before have I ever seen the hostility toward government and people in government that lives today. Scott happened to appear on the scene with a pocket full of money at the identical time that anger bubbled to the surface."
But McCollum is hoping to sway voters as he did with Lois Jones, a 75-year-old retiree who lives in Homestead. She's concerned about the fraud scandal at Scott's former company, and said he doesn't know enough to be the state's chief executive.
"McCollum has been there for us before, he has the experience in government," she said. "Running a business and running a government are two totally different things."