In one of my first classes, I had a group of anxious and ambitious candidates ready to take on the world. Among that group was a then-mustachioed and charismatic young man by the name of Connie Mack (the mustache later disappeared). That "student," who went on to become a member of Congress and a U.S. senator, didn't need my help at all. In fact, he stood out among the group, and not just because his grandfather was a famed baseball player and manager for whom a youth baseball league was named.
Now many years later, his son serves in Congress and seeks the opportunity to take on incumbent Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson in November. To most observers, his path is completely free and clear for the right to serve as the Republican nominee for Nelson's Senate seat ... but, not so fast.
Rep. Connie Mack IV is facing a candidate who ironically has already served in the U.S. Senate, having been appointed to an open seat by then-Gov. Charlie Crist. Former Sen. George LeMieux served a relatively short time in the Senate, keeping his promise not run for re-election, and thus opening the door for the GOP's rising superstar, Sen. Marco Rubio.
Mud is flying in this overlooked contest, and as has been my policy over the years, I do not get into the mud. Both candidates, as to their voting records and positions, seem perfectly acceptable to the GOP electorate. But LeMieux suffers from less name identification and the unfair shadow of former-Gov. Crist, once a hero to Republicans in the state and now a pariah.
But LeMieux in fact built quite a conservative resume for himself in his short stint in the U.S. Senate. He voted against Obamacare and against raising the debt ceiling on more than one occasion, and opposed thousand of earmarks.
In straw polls that have taken place recently among Republican and conservative groups where both candidates have appeared, LeMieux has emerged the winner. He touts the fact that during his short time of service he proposed more spending cuts than all but one of the members of the Senate. He notes that he voted to cut federal spending by $900 billion and voted to terminate TARP and use any remaining finds to reduce the deficit.
That record helps him shake any doubts about having worked for, and being appointed by, Crist. And it is winning him the support of some major tea party-backed political names, such as former presidential candidate Herman Cain.
But LeMieux faces one significant challenge: Both he and his opponent have relatively little cash on hand to fight it out in Florida's numerous and expensive major media markets. Hence, Mack has the default advantage of having been named after his father and, to his credit, having spent years in elected office at various levels. In a cash-strapped race, the winner is usually the one with stronger name identification.
Still, this contest could become a close battle. LeMieux is picking up financial backing from big-money supporters of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's campaign, in part because Mack decided to crash a Gingrich event and spar with Gingrich's spunky press secretary, basically verbally attacking Gingrich. Yes, Romney won Florida -- but Gingrich had plenty of conservative supporters who can write checks, as well.
For LeMieux to win, he needs more money for television and at least one of those famous Florida televised debates. He then has to hope that the hardcore Republican voters emerge, because they are the most likely to watch a debate and let it decide their vote.
Mack has numerous advantages. He has been endorsed by the head of the official third party organization, branded the "Tea Party." How much that will bring to the table is an unknown. His wife is a fellow member of Congress, Mary Bono Mack, who came to Congress after the untimely death of her late husband, Sonny Bono. Sonny was a very kind and gentle person. It looks like this race in Florida, unless something fires it up, might be as mellow as was Sonny.
And the winner must take on the incumbent Bill Nelson and his huge financial war chest, which will be no small task -- no small task, indeed.