Campaign Crawlers

Mack Declares Himself the Winner

Unimpressive Senate candidate claims victory by TKO two months before Florida's GOP primary.

By 6.11.12

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A boxing match can be stopped if one fighter is dominating another and the guy on the receiving end has no chance of recovering. But it's normally the referee who calls it, not one of the fighters. Besides, a Senate nominating race is not a boxing match. Connie Mack IV doesn't appear to understand this.

Mack, a Florida congressman, is well ahead of his three opponents -- George LeMieux, David Weldon, and Mike McCalister -- in the race for the Republican Senate nomination and the right to run against incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson in November. Most polls show Mack leading all his rivals by 20 to 40 points. He's scooped up the important endorsements, including that of still-popular former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who rarely endorses in primaries. Mack has even gotten two thumbs up from Mitt Romney.

Worthies like these have said Mack is who conservatives need to beat Nelson this year and exercise leadership in the Senate. From Bush: "Connie Mack is the principled conservative that the people of Florida deserve representing them in the U.S. Senate. Connie has the courage, conservative values, experience, and determination to confront the tough issues facing our nation. We must return conservatives to the majority in the U.S. Senate. Connie is the person Floridians need in Washington working with Senator Marco Rubio to reduce our national debt and limit out-of-control spending."

Well, endorsers say things like this, and wouldn't it be nice to think it's so? But an examination of Mack's three-plus terms in the House reveals a record that is generally conservative, but thin. He'll have to grow into Bush's endorsement.

All this giddy talk has made Mack and his handlers light-headed. They've declared Mack the winner of the nomination with more than two months to go before the August 14 primary. We learned of this when the Tampa Bay Times, Florida's PBS stations, and Tampa's 24-hour news station attempted to co-sponsor a July 26 debate between the Republican candidates. The response from the Mack camp can be paraphrased: We don't need no stinking debate.

"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's campaign manager Jeff Cohen wrote to the Times when declining the debate offer. "A primary debate among Republicans would only serve to benefit Bill Nelson."

Cohen may be right that a Republican debate would help Nelson, especially if the participants can't raise the debate above the "nyah, nyah, nyah, you're one too" level the campaign has been waged to this point. (Geez, what if Mitt Romney had thought of this argument to declare a winner in February?)

But debates would also help Republicans pick a Senate candidate. The same polls that show Mack well ahead of Brands X,Y, and Z, also show 30 percent or more of Republican voters are undecided in this race.

It would be especially beneficial to Nelson if Mack is the eventual nominee and the debates highlight Mack's personal history, which includes road rage incidents, bar fights, and an approach to his personal finances quite unlike the approach Mack preaches for the nation's finances. And any forum that makes it clear that the Mack running is not the still popular, former U.S. Senator Connie Mack III is not a benefit to the current candidate. One of young Connie's electoral advantages this year is mistaken identity on the part of an unknown number of Republican voters. 

But beneficial to Nelson or no, it's more than a bit cheeky to attempt to highjack an election more than two months before Election Day. Mack may consider himself a winner. But plenty of Republicans in Florida consider him more of a wiener, and they have nine weeks left to make their case. Republican primary voters, not Connie Mack IV, will decide who brings home the gold in this one.

The debate would be clarifying for voters. Mack should either participate or admit he's turning it down because he's well ahead in the polls and doesn't want to give his opponents an opportunity to score points against him. When off of his memorized talking points, Mack is not the most articulate guy on the block. It's not clear that he would do well in a debate. He and his handlers know this. Thus the bob and weave.

About the only thing borderline positive that can be said about Mack's forensic no-show is that at least he came by it honestly. His father declined to debate in his 1988 Senate primary race against former Tampa U.S. Attorney Robert "Mad Dog" Merkle. The colorful Merkle, now deceased, carried around with him on the campaign trail a life-sized image of Mack, which he called Cardboard Connie.

The gag didn't help Merkle, who got only 38 percent of the vote in that primary. Mack III won the primary and the general in '88 and went on to become a solid, conservative U.S. Senator for two terms. But young Mack's prospects aren't as rosy as his dad's were back then. Most polls show Nelson, who is both liberal and bland and should be a weak candidate, with a double-digit lead over Mack (as well as over the other Republican hopefuls). It should be pointed out to Mack that Nelson could use the same excuse for not debating Mack that Mack is using now to duck his Republican rivals.

This is all melancholy business for Florida conservatives, who after 2010's grand hurrah were looking forward to retiring Nelson, a reliable Obama supporter who has voted for Obamacare, cap and trade, Dodd-Frank, Obama's stimulus slush fund, and just about every other big-spending, government-expanding phantasm to come down the pike. Mack aptly calls Nelson a "lockstep liberal."

Absent some changes and some coherence from the conservative side very soon, the right will have lost an opportunity in Florida to advance its cause. Every indication now is that Florida Republicans will match the Democrats' weak Senate candidate with an even weaker one of their own.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.