- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 31, 2009

ORLANDO, Fla. | It’s not hard to find policy areas where fellow Florida Republicans Bill McCollum and Charlie Crist have differences.

Gambling, restoring ex-felons’ voting rights, abortion, the federal economic stimulus, energy and other issues. Mr. McCollum, the state’s attorney general, is considered a conservative policy wonk, and Mr. Crist, the governor and Senate hopeful, is a populist who prefers to think in general terms while leaving the details to staff.

So it was a just a little bit odd recently when Mr. McCollum mailed a fundraising letter in which he said if elected governor he wants to be “a leader who will carry on the conservative legacy of Governors Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush.” Many Florida Republicans don’t consider Mr. Crist to be a true conservative.

Despite the mailer, don’t expect Mr. McCollum to campaign as a Crist conservative. He’s already being cautious about what he says about the current governor. While Mr. McCollum will talk about his views, he isn’t always forthcoming about his opinions on Mr. Crist.

Asked about the fundraising letter and who he is more like - conservative, policy-minded Mr. Bush or Mr. Crist - Mr. McCollum replied, “I’m not going there.”

“More and more you’re going to simply see us talking about Bill McCollum - not with any disrespect to either of the two of them, but this campaign is about where we go in the future, not in the past,” he said.

Expressing his own views while creating space between some of Mr. Crist’s positions can be a delicate walk.

Mr. McCollum was asked whether he would have signed the latest state budget, which included more than $2.2 billion in new taxes and fees, and he said, “I don’t have to face that issue today.” The $66.5 billion budget also used $5.3 billion in federal economic stimulus money to plug funding holes.

Mr. McCollum quickly added that he’d have to face a similar problem in 2011 - a $4 billion to $5 billion budget hole once stimulus dollars are gone - and he didn’t sound like someone who would ask Floridians or the federal government to help fill the void.

“It’s the worst time in the world to be raising taxes. All of us just have to face reality that as long as we have revenue shortfalls, we’re going to wind up seeing more belt-tightening,” Mr. McCollum said.

Mr. McCollum was against the federal stimulus package from the start, unlike Mr. Crist, who literally hugged President Obama in February at a Fort Myers rally in support of it. Mr. McCollum, a former congressman, continues to criticize it.

“It was a very bad thing for the United States and the state of Florida,” Mr. McCollum said. “It’s done more harm than good.”

Mr. McCollum was elected in 2006, replacing Mr. Crist as attorney general when Mr. Crist became governor. Mr. Crist is leaving after one term to run for Senate. Mr. McCollum is the front-runner in a Republican gubernatorial primary that also includes state Sen. Paula Dockery.

The economy is the top issue Mr. McCollum and the likely Democratic nominee, state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, are talking about in the campaign. But Mr. McCollum won’t talk about whether Mr. Crist has done enough to help bring jobs to the state as unemployment has reached 11.5 percent.

“I’m not going down the path of criticizing the current administration. I’m telling you what I would do, what I see that needs to be done. Obviously, I feel we need to do more, and we need to do better,” Mr. McCollum said.

That’s one of the reasons why his position on energy policy is different from Mr. Crist’s. Mr. Crist wants a cap-and-trade program to limit carbon dioxide emissions by power plants and require companies to pay whenever they exceed the restrictions on the gases widely suspected of causing global warming.

Mr. McCollum said he agrees that more clean energy needs to be developed, but he doesn’t want the effort to drive up the cost of energy to the point where it scares off businesses and hurts consumers.

“We have these two competing interests - one of them is our desire, which I strongly support, of moving to alternatives and reducing our carbon footprint. The other one is that we can’t and should not be doing it at such great expense,” Mr. McCollum said. “I’m very much against cap and trade.”

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