Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum launched his bid for governor Monday in his hometown, pledging to keep the office in Republican hands by advancing a populist agenda centered on kitchen-table concerns and "inclusion."McCollum, 64, a staunch social conservative during his 20 years in Congress, described his campaign as "a new way up" that would focus on education, the economy, "a renewed commitment to our environment" as well as "access and inclusion."
"We're going to win," McCollum told a crowd of about 100 at the Embassy Suites in downtown Orlando.But his announcement immediately set off another intra-party squabble over whether the state GOP should try to discourage potential primary challengers to save money for the 2010 general election -- when the GOP nominee will likely face a well-funded Democratic contender in Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink.
Since Gov. Charlie Crist's decision last week to run for the U.S. Senate, Republican leaders hoping to avoid a primary have rushed to support McCollum, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2000 and 2004.
But while McCollum is the first Republican to announce his candidacy, term-limited Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson has said he may run for governor as well.
Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer said Monday that he would take "the unusual step" of asking the party's executive committee in July to endorse McCollum even if he has a primary opponent.
"We cannot exclude any candidates, but we can strive to have a unified party at certain times in our state's history," Greer said.
Bronson said Monday he was troubled by the notion that party insiders and "the people in Tallahassee" were acting as if they were more qualified than voters to decide who should run.
"I'm not sure rank-and-file Republicans are going to go for that," he said. "It's not a good situation to tell people, 'Well, OK, here's your candidate. Take it or leave it.' "
Greer generated hard feelings last week when he attempted to get the national party to funnel money to Crist's U.S. Senate bid even though he has primary opposition from former state House Speaker Marco Rubio.
Crist said Monday he would stay out of that fight. "I'll leave that decision to the party. They ought to do what they think is right," he said.
McCollum also demurred on whether Bronson, a longtime friend, should run.
"He may very well stay in it. If he is, he'll be a good competitor and will run a good primary race," McCollum said. "I hope of course at some point he joins us too."
Most of the GOP leaders at McCollum's announcement dodged the question of primaries -- but not Senate President Jeff Atwater, R- North Palm Beach, who is set to announce his bid for chief financial officer today.
"I think longer-term, it's healthier for us to have primaries and not be narrowing the voices and enthusiasm that are going to come from an entire broad base," Atwater said.
With Republicans nationally and in Florida struggling to re-brand their party after two disappointing elections, McCollum could be seen as a status-quo candidate: white, socially conservative, and a career politician.
"It's not surprising that Bill McCollum is running for office again; he's been in politics for at least 32 years. This is his career," said Sink campaign spokeswoman Tara Klimek.
But Republicans hope the money and energy spent to build up McCollum in past elections will pay off. Unlike Sink, who has run once statewide, McCollum is known to voters for his three campaigns this decade, including for attorney general in 2006.
That said, McCollum's first campaign speech seemed to offer a version of Charlie Crist 101 -- heavy on appeals to bring together diverse groups to solve problems from the center.
"What we need in this state in leadership is bringing together a wide range of people: the brightest minds in this state, the brightest talents in the state," he said. "Working together we can solve some major challenges that we have and turn some major obstacles into opportunities."
McCollum served in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and in 20 years as a Central Florida congressman was most active on terrorism issues. As attorney general since 2007, he has focused on cracking down on cyberpredators and sexual offenders.
"He's not the flashiest," said lobbyist and Republican fundraiser Brian Ballard. "But this is a time when people want stability, and he screams stability."
One highlight of his congressional career is his role in the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, when he served as one of the House's managers.
John Morgan, a prominent Orlando trial lawyer and fundraiser for Clinton as well as for Sink, said McCollum has cultivated an extremist image that could give Sink a significant edge in capturing the crucial middle of the electorate: independents.
"I think the Republicans will make the mistake of nominating Bill McCollum, and I believe Florida is a moderate state," Morgan said.
"They don't want far-right cuckoo birds."