Weeks From Primary, Fla. Senate Race Nearly Decided
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. A lot is riding on Florida's Senate race. Democrat Bill Nelson will take on the winner of next month's Republican primary. But who that Republican candidate will be, is not much of a mystery. Florida Republicans are rallying behind Congressman Connie Mack. But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, not all of them are happy about it.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In Tampa, a couple of hundred Republicans turned out this week for the party's monthly meeting.
ART WOOD: Is it a great night to be a Republican?
ALLEN: The big turnout, Hillsborough County Republican Chairman Art Wood said, was because of the list of speakers - including a candidate for the Republican Senate nomination, Congressman Connie Mack.
REP. CONNIE MACK: I'm tired of a federal government - I'm tired of President Obama and Senator Nelson voting as lockstep liberals in Washington, D.C., but then trying to come to the State of Florida and act, somehow, like they're moderate Democrats.
ALLEN: Since he entered the race, Mack has focused not on his Republican opponents for the nomination, but on the main prize: the seat of Florida's two-term Democratic senator, Bill Nelson. And to hear Mack tell it, Florida's primary, set for August 14th, is already over.
MACK: We have been through a primary in the State of Florida. And I think, you know, primaries are difficult. They're kind of like a family feud. But we need to now come together.
ALLEN: As the son of a respected, former Republican senator with the same name, Mack entered the primary race as a front-runner, and has made the most of his political connections. He gained endorsements from Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney; and attracted support from GOP-leaning, outside groups that see him as the candidate with the best chance of unseating Nelson. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has not endorsed any candidate.]
For months, while the Republican candidates sorted themselves out, those groups have kept up a constant attack.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADS)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: It's time to send a message to Washington: Stop the spending. And time to send a message to Bill Nelson, who voted for the wasteful...
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: What are the facts about President Obama's health-care law? Fact: Bill Nelson was the deciding vote...
ALLEN: Although Nelson enjoys a significant fund-raising edge over Mack, groups like the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity, and Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS and American Crossroads, are expected to spend millions of dollars evening the playing field. But before Mack can take on Nelson, he still has to officially gain the nomination. Faced with Mack's name and backing, two earlier candidates dropped out of the race.
But there are still others in the race, including former congressman Dave Weldon. Weldon says he thinks some of those who tell pollsters they support Mack, are thinking of his father.
DAVE WELDON: I think Connie Mack is running on the brand name. He has not established himself for anything that he's done.
ALLEN: Weldon says he got into the race at the urging of conservatives and other Republicans, who question Mack's credentials and the way he's been anointed by the party's power structure.
WELDON: Amongst Republicans who are in-the-know, a lot of them sort of resent what's going on. And many of them are getting on board with me - and donating to me, and volunteering for me.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)
ALLEN: At the Hillsborough County Republican meeting, most of those I spoke to said that while Mack wasn't their original choice, they'll be happy to support him. But several said they were disappointed by Mack's refusal to debate any of his Republican opponents.
Georgia Carney, a Republican from Fish Hawk - near Tampa - agrees that the primary is, essentially, over.
GEORGIA CARNEY: Because he's backed by the good old boys, let's put it that way. Do I like that? No. I like for everybody to have a choice, particularly in the primaries.
ALLEN: As for Mack, he's unapologetic about not debating in the primary. He's already agreed to a debate with Nelson, he says, and has run what he thinks is a smart campaign, saving his fire for his main opponent.
MACK: And one of the reasons why I got in, is because I saw in the primary that Republicans were attacking Republicans. We need to focus on Senator Nelson. We have a common goal. And that is to beat Senator Nelson, to beat Barack Obama, and get this country back on the road to prosperity.
ALLEN: Knocking off Senator Nelson would be coup for Republicans, putting them a step closer toward gaining control of the Senate. Although Mack has gained in the polls in recent weeks, most still show Nelson with a small lead.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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Correction July 20, 2012
We incorrectly said that Sen. Marco Rubio has endorsed Rep. Connie Mack IV in the Florida primary election for the U.S. Senate. Rubio has not endorsed anyone.