GOP's Mack Still Struggling Against Fla. Incumbent

Florida Republican Rep. Connie Mack IV easily won his party's nomination to take on Sen. Bill Nelson, considered vulnerable and the only Democrat holding a statewide office in the state. The son of respected former senator Connie Mack III, Mack's name is well known, but he's not caught fire with Republicans and Independents. He trails Nelson by several points and is under-performing GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Florida. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

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The bump that has energized Mitt Romney's campaign at this point has not translated to Senate races. And GOP hopes to capture control of the Senate are beginning to ebb. There are 23 Democratic seats up this fall, compared to just 10 Republican Senate seats in play. In several races though, Democratic candidates are proving to be less vulnerable than expected. And in some cases, the Republican challengers are running into problems of their own.

NPR's Greg Allen reports from Florida, where Republican Connie Mack IV is struggling in his campaign to unseat the incumbent Democratic Senator Bill Nelson.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: It's a name well-known to Floridians. The Connie Mack political brand was firmly established by the current candidate's father, Connie Mack III. That Connie Mack represented Florida for nearly 20 years as a congressman and senator. And then there's Connie Mack, the famous former baseball manager and owner. He was Connie Mack IV's great-grandfather. Mack's campaign literature has a baseball on it as a reminder.

It all helped this youngest Mack win the GOP nomination to the Senate pretty easily. But it wasn't until recently that he hit the campaign trail with a simple message.

CONNIE MACK: If Mitt Romney wins, I win.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

MACK: If I win, Mitt Romney wins.

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MACK: And if we win, America and Florida wins.

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ALLEN: Right now, polls show Florida a tossup between Romney and President Obama. But Mack appears to be performing much worse than Romney, lagging as much as 10 points behind Democrat Bill Nelson in those same polls. At a rally recently in central Florida, Mike Hamlin, a Republican activist from Eustis, said there might be a few reasons for that.

MIKE HAMLIN: Well, all I can think of is Connie Mack does have a few blemishes on his record. He's known for being a little rowdy now and then. And sometimes he doesn't vote as often as he should.

ALLEN: It's a message right out of an ad Nelson has been running for weeks, attacking his Republican opponent.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Florida, meet Connie Mack IV, a promoter for Hooters with a history of barroom brawling, altercations and road rage...

ALLEN: Mack was indeed a marketing executive for a company that owned several Hooters franchises. And more than 20 years ago, he was involved in road rage incidents and barroom fights including one that landed him in court.

Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, notes that Nelson has a big fundraising advantage over Mack, and has used the money effectively.

AUBREY JEWETT: And so Nelson was able to define Connie Mack very early on, before the average voter really got to know him. And, of course, the way your opponent defines you is usually not good.

ALLEN: In terms of raising money, Mack had a good quarter, out-raising Nelson and pulling in $2.7 million. Plus, a number of outside groups are spending millions in the race, buying ads attacking Nelson.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And this is where Senator Nelson cast the deciding vote for Obamacare, cutting Medicare spending by 700 billion...

ALLEN: Those claims from an American Crossroads ad have been labeled false by independent fact checkers. Nelson was one of 60 Senators who voted to pass Obamacare, but not one of the final ones to come on board. And the $700 billion figure is the amount of money by which the health care plan reduces payments to providers, not cuts in benefits.

Those attacks don't appear to have helped Mack, at least not enough. In recent weeks, Nelson's lead has grown. Jewett thinks some of that has to do with Mack.

JEWETT: Connie Mack himself has not been as aggressive and hasn't been barnstorming the state and campaigning and really rallying the troops. He just has not gotten a lot of energy and excitement. It seems like most of the attention is focused on Florida in the presidential race and not so much in the Senate race. And that's bad for the challenger, if you're at least a reasonably liked incumbent like Bill Nelson.

ALLEN: Mack's campaign says the race is closer than the polls suggest. His campaign and outside groups plan to step up their attacks on Nelson. But what Mack is counting on most is coat-tails from Mitt Romney. A Republican win big enough in the presidential race that it might also sweep him into the Senate.

Greg Allen, NPR news, Miami.

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