TALLAHASSEE (AP) — This year’s Senate race competing for attention with the presidential election is like the Arena Football League championship going head-to-head with the Super Bowl, Bruce Hornsby playing across town from Bruce Springsteen or “Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector” playing on the screen next to the latest Batman extravaganza.
While some folks are paying attention, most eyes are on the bigger event on the Nov. 6 ballot. Republican Congressman Connie Mack IV’s campaign to unseat two-term Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson has almost been an afterthought as President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney are in a heated, super-tight election in the largest of battleground states.
Obama, Romney and the outside groups that support them have gobbled up tons of television time. And the candidates, their running mates and their wives have been holding Florida rallies almost daily leading up to the election, making the Senate race the most lackluster in recent years.
“Drawing on 1988, I remember how difficult it was to get anybody to pay attention to the Senate race when you’ve got a hotly contested presidential race,” said Connie Mack III, who won the seat his son now seeks. And that race between George H.W. Bush and Democrat Mike Dukakis wasn’t nearly as competitive as this year’s presidential contest. “And of course with Florida today being one of the key states, most of the attention is going to go to the presidential race.”
It hasn’t helped that the Republican primary started as a wild, crowded race and then fizzled when the younger Mack and his famous name entered, driving three major candidates out of the race. Instead of a post-primary boost, Mack, 45, was in a position of having to generate his own excitement, and it’s been slow going. And Nelson, 70, hasn’t done much to raise the profile of the race, either, choosing to quietly raise a lot of money and air television ads rather than large-scale public campaigning.
There was only one debate, and it was an ugly one. Mack pushed to make Nelson look like a tax-raising liberal in lockstep with Obama, and Nelson called Mack a liar. Instead of dealing head-on with issues, it was mostly a lot of finger pointing.
With less than three weeks to go before the election, retired teacher Carole Delhorbe hasn’t made up her mind, saying she still needs to research Mack because she doesn’t know much about him other than what she’s seen in television ads.
“I like Nelson as a person,” said Delhorbe, a Republican from Ruskin who is supporting Obama. “I may vote for him but I haven’t decided yet.”
And even the star-power of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani couldn’t drum up a huge crowd when Mack pulled up to a Port St. Luce restaurant about two weeks before the election. About 60 people attended, including two waitresses and some random passersby who were unaware of the event until stumbling across it.
Trase Rowland, 70, a Republican from Fort Pierce, was asked what he liked about Mack as he waited for him and Giuliani to arrive.
“I don’t know yet,” he said. “I know some interesting things about Connie Mack, more about his father and his great-grandfather.”
Other than a campaign event with Jimmy Buffett, Nelson has mostly been a low-key campaigner. While Mack was hitting multiple cities a day on a bus tour, Nelson planned to take reporters on a visit to four-generations of family graves in the conservative north Florida town of Chipley.
Nelson has the advantage of incumbency and the name he’s built through 12 years in the Senate, in addition to serving as insurance commissioner when it was still a Cabinet post. The Orlando resident is folksy with old Florida roots and he’s proven he can win even when other Democrats on the ballot can’t.
In 2000, he beat Republican Bill McCollum by 284,000 votes when Republican George W. Bush carried Florida by just 537. And in 2006, he beat Katherine Harris by 22 percentage points when Republican Charlie Crist won the governor’s office by 7 percentage points.
Mack was largely able to clear the Republican primary field base on his name. Besides his father, the Fort Myers resident’s great-grandfather is the baseball Hall of Fame manger. Other than trying to tie Nelson to Obama on issues like the president’s health care overhaul and economic policies, a centerpiece of his campaign is what he calls his “Penny Plan.”
Mack proposes cutting government spending by 1 percent each year for six years and then cap spending in the seventh year to balance the budget. Nelson said it would devastate funding for government programs like Medicare and Social Security.
The campaign has been negative. Nelson ads have attacked Mack’s character, pointing to a bar fight and other incidents from his past.
And Mack has been misleading about Nelson’s record, like the oft-repeated lines that Nelson voted for higher taxes more than 150 times and was the deciding vote for Obama’s health care overhaul. Another Nelson — Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson — is cited as being the last Democrat to declare support for the plan.
“If I were in the United States Senate, we wouldn’t have Obamacare. He was the deciding vote,” Mack said, a claim that could be made against the other 59 senators who supported it.
And Mack repeatedly says Nelson votes for Obama’s agenda 98 percent of the time, though Nelson is widely considered closer to the political middle than most of his Democratic Senate colleagues by non-partisan groups that analyze voting records.
That’s the image Nelson, who flew on the space shuttle as a congressman in 1986, is trying to project.
“When I flew in space, I looked through the window of that spacecraft back at Earth and it was stunning that I didn’t see any political division, and I didn’t see ethnic and religious divisions. We’re all in this together,” Nelson said during the debate with Mack. “That’s a metaphor of what we should do in our politics — bring people together in a bi-partisan way. We’re not Rs or Ds, we’re Americans.”
Follow Brendan Farrington on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bsfarrington