Byline: Charlie Patton, The Times-Union
In a race in which all the candidates describe themselves as conservatives -- and invoke the name of former President Ronald Reagan -- the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate may boil down to whose conservative record is most convincing.
Bill McCollum, an Orlando attorney who served 20 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, says he's the conservative with the most congressional experience and the most expertise on the issue of international terrorism.
Mel Martinez, an Orlando attorney who was George W. Bush's secretary of Housing and Urban Development for three years, says he's the conservative with the closest affiliation to the president.
Johnnie Byrd, a Plant City attorney who is outgoing speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, says he's the conservative with the purest record of conservatism, an ardent fiscal and social conservative.
Doug Gallagher, a Coral Gables businessman who has never held public office, though he did once run unsuccessfully for the state Senate, says he's the conservative who is the true outsider, a non-lawyer untainted by politics.
On the basis of their standings in a poll which found they all had at least 5 percent support among likely Republican voters, those four were invited by The Orlando Sentinel and Orlando's NBC affiliate to participate in a debate Aug. 10.
The most recent independent poll by Mason-Dixon found McCollum the front-runner with 29 percent support followed by Martinez with 24 percent. McCollum's campaign announced last week that its own poll showed McCollum with almost a 20-point lead, while the Martinez campaign countered that its pollsters had found McCollum's lead was only 4 percentage points. But even McCollum's pollster found that undecided voters, at 37 percent, outnumbered supporters of any individual candidate.
The candidate who attracts the most votes in the Tuesday, Aug. 31, primary will represent Republicans in the November general election. There will be no runoff and with eight names on the ballot, a candidate could potentially win the election with less than 15 percent of the vote.
Thus, even Larry Klayman, a Miami attorney, insists he remains a viable candidate in a wide-open race. Klayman calls himself an outsider who has experience fighting insiders.
"The point is that I'm a watchdog," said Klayman, who founded Judicial Watch in 1994 to battle the Clinton administration. "I know how to take the establishment on."
Three other candidates will also appear on the ballot.
Sonya Marsh, a patent attorney who was an Air Force pilot during the first Gulf War, says she's the conservative who is a champion of women's issues. With a master's degree in public administration and a law degree, she also argues she's the best-educated candidate. But she has made few campaign appearances and, as of June 30, had raised less than $46,000.
Billy Kogut, an Ormond Beach Realtor, has not actively campaigned or raised money. But Kogut, who said he was inspired to get into politics after he shook Reagan's hand in 1980, thinks he can attract a lot of support if he can get publicity for his proposal to include waiters and waitresses under federal minimum wage law.
Karen Saull, a Vero Beach businesswoman, announced this month she was withdrawing from the race although her name remains on the ballot.
Among the leaders, Gallagher has raised the most money, fueled by the almost $6 million he has donated to his own campaign. Martinez has raised $4.65 million, while McCollum has raised about $4 million.
Martinez, a Cuban immigrant who came to the United States as a teenager, has picked up a number of endorsements from the Florida Republican establishment, including the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Right to Life Committee, and 16 U.S. senators.
Martinez has been under fire from his opponents because he is a trial lawyer. …