Primaries Offer Lessons on Political Strategies; CASH Can Party Money Win against Free-Spending Self-Funded Candidates? INFLUENCE Do Endorsements by Popular Politicians Really Get Voters to the Polls?

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Byline: BRANDON LARRABEE

TALLAHASSEE - Primary elections are sometimes more than simply fights to advance to the next stage of the campaign for office; they can also be learning experiences about the politics of the moment. Expect Tuesday's vote to be no different.

A handful of lessons could be learned in races across the state. For instance, how well state Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, fares against Beaches dermatologist Charles Perniciaro, who ran heavily on education issues, could give clues to the half-life of the radioactive Senate Bill 6 that Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed.

The most closely watched races, though, will almost certainly be the GOP battle for the gubernatorial nomination and the Democratic fight for the nod for an open U.S. Senate seat. Both will be watched for indications about the powers of money and incumbency, with self-funded health care executive Rick Scott taking on Attorney General Bill McCollum in the Republican race and billionaire real-estate investor Jeff Greene targeting U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek in the Democratic race.

The winner of the governor's race will face state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat, and nonaffiliated Bud Chiles, son of a legendary former Democratic governor, in the general election. Meek or Greene will end up in a three-candidate free-for-all with former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Miami, and Crist, who bolted the GOP after Rubio's primary bid caught fire.

The GOP race has gone back and forth, with McCollum easily leading early on, then falling behind Scott before showing signs of regaining a strong lead in most recent polls.

That's due in large part to the increasingly bright light McCollum was able to shine on questions about Rick Scott's business past - the very outsider credentials that a month ago seemed like a strength - said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida.

"I think the excitement, the luster of Rick Scott started to tarnish as Bill McCollum was able to have some outside money attack Scott's business credentials and character," Smith said.

Indeed, Scott and Greene both banked on the angst rolling through the electorate, which seemed to focus its rage on "career politicians," as well as their deep pockets. But the idea might have faded as the election approached. Scott's drop in particular could indicate the limits of the populist conservative tea party movement, which grew in large part because of the federal health-care law that Scott fiercely fought before entering the governor's race.

"We're seeing across the country that the outsider rage, this tempest in a tea party pot, is not necessarily as strong as it seems," Smith said.

Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said it might not be a coincidence that the outsiders began to fade about the same time that early voting began.

"People then had to start focusing more," she said. …