TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Republican voters will decide next Tuesday who should challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in December. From Congressman Connie Mack IV's perspective, it's a decision that was made months ago _ and the pollsters seem to agree.
Mack is considered the heavy favorite in a primary that's seen a once-crowded field get smaller as candidates dropped out. Mack declined to debate other opponents, saying it was clear the choice was between him and Nelson.
“He is going to be the nominee. I have no doubt in my mind,'' said former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, who dropped out of the race in June. He noted that the lesser-known candidates in the race don't have the time or resources to get a message out and catch Mack. “It's not difficult, it's impossible. There's 4 million plus Republican voters.''
LeMieux should know. Despite having held the job, he wasn't as well-known as an elected senator because he was appointed to the position to fill the remaining 16 months of Sen. Mel Martinez' term. LeMieux dropped out of the race, in part, because Mack refused to participate in primary debates and LeMieux didn't have the resources to draw a contrast with Mack on his own.
And Mack's reason for not debating? The campaign, largely based on his commanding lead in the polls, essentially declared him the winner last spring, well ahead of the Aug. 14 primary. A poll taken at the end of June showed Mack with a 4-to-1 lead over his opponents.
“It's clear the race for the U.S. Senate in Florida is now between Connie Mack, the Republican, and Bill Nelson, the Democrat,'' Mack campaign manager Jeff Cohen wrote on June 6 to the St. Petersburg Times, which had hoped to host a primary debate. Mack also turned down two other debate invitations accepted by other candidates.
Mack, who will turn 45 two days before the primary, is buoyed by the famous name he shares with his father, a former senator, and his great-grandfather, the Hall of Fame baseball manager. Mack has also lined up the Republican Party establishment behind him, including former Gov. Jeb Bush and presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. He has represented a southwest Florida district since 2005 and is married to Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack of California.
Mack's campaign has been in a general election strategy mode for months. The candidate was not made available to talk about the primary despite several requests for an interview.
Nelson also is already treating him like the general election opponent, running an ad almost two weeks before the primary that attacks Mack's character in part by mentioning altercations in bars and road rage incidents Mack was involved in during his 20s.
There are other names on the Republican ballot, but in a state as large and expensive to campaign in as Florida, it seems unlikely that any have the name recognition, popularity or money to catch Mack.
Most notable are former Rep. Dave Weldon, a doctor and Army veteran who was a favorite of social conservatives during his time in Washington, and retired Army Col. Mike McCalister.
Weldon, 58, entered the race nearly at the last minute, giving himself just three months to try to catch Mack. While he's been able to secure endorsements from some social conservatives and the Tampa Bay Times and Palm Beach Post, it appears he won't have the time or money to erode Mack's support.
“We're doing what we can with the resources that we have,'' said Weldon, who served seven terms in Congress, ending in 2009. “I'm not going to give up. I am going to stay in the race.''
With no money for television ads, Weldon is relying on volunteers making phone calls, mass emails, radio spots and driving the state to attend any event he can to get out his word and ask for grass roots help.
He notes that this close to the primary, there are still a lot of undecided voters _ a sign that there's a lack of enthusiasm for Mack. That and the complacency Mack's shown in the primary makes Weldon hopeful there's a chance he can overcome the odds.
“He really hasn't given the undecideds a reason to vote for him. He doesn't have a good reason to vote for him,'' said Weldon, who said the only reason he got in the race is heard from many who were unimpressed with Mack.
McCalister initially received attention as a favorite of tea party activists and became more credible when he signed on Republican strategist Buzz Jacobs, who ran 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain's Florida effort.
But McCalister's campaign sputtered. Jacobs left months ago, and McCalister hasn't been able to raise the resources for an effective statewide campaign. What little movement he had in the polls early on has slipped back down to single digits.
Among others who were in the race before dropping out: state Senate President Mike Haridpolos, former state Rep. Adam Hasner, and former Ruth's Chris Steak House CEO Craig Miller.