Nelson the biggest target for GOP in Florida in '12

Three Republicans say they will run against the senator

Published: Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 10:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 10:20 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — After dominating the midterm elections, Republicans hold every statewide elected office in Florida — except one.

And if they can beat the remaining Democratic holdout — U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson — next year, Republicans would claim every statewide elected office in Florida for the first time in state history.

That makes Nelson the biggest target for Republicans in Florida in 2012, when he seeks election to a third term.

Already, Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a Republican from Brevard County, has announced he will run against Nelson, and at least two other high-profile Republicans are sizing up the race: former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux and U.S. Rep. Connie Mack.

Nelson, first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000, knows he's in for a tough campaign. Attempting to inoculate himself from the 2010 election's anti-Democratic mood, Nelson has already sought to separate himself from President Barack Obama, who has seen his popularity slide since his inauguration two years ago.

"Now the president — I have made no bones about — has made some major mistakes with regard to Florida," Nelson told the media last week, citing Obama's handling of the Gulf oil spill and NASA funding.

Nelson said the Obama administration needed a better command structure in the Gulf of Mexico during the oil spill and made it appear that NASA's manned-space program would be eliminated instead of being restructured.

But even if he can distance himself from Obama, Nelson knows the path to re-election will be rough.

"Coming out of 2010, you'd think anybody who is a Democrat is a target," Nelson said.

Moderate stance

Never has the political landscape looked bleaker for Democrats in Florida than coming out of last November's elections. Not only did they fail to win any statewide Cabinet office or the governor's mansion, they also saw the number of Democrats in the congressional delegation drop from 10 to just six out of 25 seats.

Nelson said regardless of what happened in 2010, he's convinced his style of moderate politics will prevail.

"I think my brand of politics is where Florida is," Nelson said. "Florida, is, in its politics, not to the extreme. Florida politics is one of moderation."

Nelson won his first U.S. Senate campaign by 5 percentage points over former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, later Florida's attorney general. In 2006, Nelson defeated Sarasota's Katherine Harris, then in Congress, by 12 percentage points.

Nelson has continued to do well in rural Florida and North Florida counties such as Duval and Escambia, especially compared with other Democrats. All four Democratic candidates for governor or the Cabinet lost those two influential North Florida counties. But Nelson won both in his 2006 re-election and, while losing them in 2000, kept the margin closer than other Democrats in recent years.

Vulnerable votes

Despite his attempts to break from Obama, Nelson is vulnerable for sticking with Obama on big votes, Republicans say.

While the GOP expects Nelson to cast himself as a moderate again, this time, Republicans say they will use his support for key elements of Obama's agenda, including the health care reform bill, against him.

Nelson said he has a history of winning even when the Democratic presidential candidate isn't popular. He said that when he ran for the state Legislature in 1972, he carried a strong Republican district, even though Sen. George McGovern was the party's presidential nominee.

"I run my own races," Nelson said.

Haridopolos hopes he will be the one to take Nelson out.

Though state lawmakers are prohibited from raising money during a legislative session, there is an exception for candidates running for federal office.

Haridopolos said last week he is still weighing whether he will raise money, even though it would give lobbyists a chance to influence his decisions during the Legislature's spring session.

Haridopolos said entering the race early was a calculated effort to build name recognition in a state with more than 19 million residents.

"I want to get known," said Haridopolos, who teaches part-time at the University of Florida. "I want people to know who I am."

LeMieux, appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist in 2009 to fill Mel Martinez's Senate term, is said to be considering running.

Mack, a Fort Myers Republican, is the son of former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack. Though Mack has only been in Congress since 2004, he could benefit from his father's popularity.

The older Mack served two terms in the U.S. Senate.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, also has not ruled out a Senate run. Buchanan seriously considered running both in 2006 and 2010.

But political experts say Buchanan might be less likely to jump in the race now because he has landed a seat on the influential House Ways and Means Committee.

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