- The Washington Times
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Money isn’t buying much love on the campaign trail these days in Florida.

With the Sunshine State’s primaries only days away, apathy among voters is as high as the summer sun despite millions of dollars spent - particularly by a pair of wealthy outsider candidates - in high-profile Senate and gubernatorial races.

But despite the personal wealth being laid out by health care executive Rick Scott - running against party favorite Attorney General Bill McCollum in the GOP Republican primary - and real estate mogul Jeff Greene - running against another party favorite, Rep. Kendrick B. Meek - in the Democratic senatorial primary, polls show unusually large numbers of voters still on the fence just a week ahead of the Aug. 24 primary.

“I don’t think anyone can predict [the outcomes] for certain,” said Nathan L. Gonzales, political editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “We’re just going to have to wait for the voters to vote. What a novel idea, right?”

Money - and lots of it - has been the common denominator in both parties, as Mr. Scott and Mr. Greene have tapped into personal fortunes to help finance their campaigns. And while each enjoyed sustained leads in the polls earlier this year, many political experts now say the primary races now are too close to call.

Rich candidates who self-finance their campaigns run the risk of alienating voters with their splashes of wealth, said University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus.

“Yes, people are glad when wealthy candidates spend their own money and not tax dollars … but then they begin to question why would somebody spend this much money to win a race, and the whole question about buying a race surfaces,” said Ms. MacManus, who closely follows Florida politics.

“I think those kinds of things are natural to emerge when you have tough economic times, when people themselves are struggling and looking at this person with deep pockets and endless desire to be in office and asking themselves, ‘Is this really what I want?’ “

Recent polls point to the huge bloc of voters still trying to make up their minds.

A Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey released last week showed that one-third of likely voters in Tuesday’s Republican primary for governor were undecided. Thirty-four percent of the poll’s respondents said they will vote for Mr. McCollum, while 30 percent picked Mr. Scott.

Another poll released last week jointly by several Florida news outlets showed Mr. Scott with a 10-point lead over Mr. McCollum. That poll also indicated a whopping 23 percent of voters couldn’t make up their mind in the race - even after the two candidates and their proxy groups spent more than $45 million on television ads.

In the Democratic Senate primary, last week’s Mason-Dixon poll showed that 28 percent of likely voters were undecided. Mr. Meek was in the lead with 40 percent, while Mr. Greene trailed with 26 percent. Six percent said they were voting for another candidate.

Mr. Scott made his fortune building up the Columbia/HCA hospitals chain. He was ousted as head of the group in 1997 in the midst of a major fraud scandal involving Medicaid and Medicare payments. He went on to co-found a chain of walk-in health care clinics, and he has spent more than $25 million of his own money for a string of TV ads touting his record at creating jobs.

Mr. Greene, a billionaire real estate investor with little support from his party, so far has spent more than $6 million of his fortune, mostly on TV ads attacking Mr. Meek, a four-term congressman, as a career politician.

Mr. Greene has been hammered by his opponents who have accused him of unscrupulously profiting from others in speculative housing ventures when the housing industry went sour a few years ago.

Both races also have involved bitingly negative advertisements and attacks from the candidates, further turning away voters, experts say.

Mr. Gonzales said the negative tone of the campaigns - not the candidates’ personal wealth - has done more to funnel voters to the “undecided” category.

“Whether it’s the negative ads or the charges being lobbied back and forth in the debates and in the media, it has caused people to maybe jump ship from one candidate but not necessary jump on with somebody else,” he said.

Many of the candidates also had little or almost no statewide name recognition entering their races, adding to voter confusion, Mr. Gonzales said.

While Mr. Meek’s campaign war chest is a fraction of his opponent’s, the South Florida congressman has sought help from an old and influential friend, former President Bill Clinton, who stumped for Mr. Meek on Monday.

“I don’t think we’ve seen anything like the Florida Senate race in its ups and downs, ” Mr. Gonzales said.

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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