ORLANDO — Former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux aggressively pointed out differences between himself and GOP Senate front-runner Connie Mack IV at a Saturday night forum with tea party organizers, drawing a sharp response from Mack.
Both candidates, along with retired Army Col. Mike McCalister, separately addressed a statewide group of tea party leaders. LeMieux repeatedly drew contrasts with Mack and criticized him as a career politician hoping to capitalize on the name of his father, former Sen. Connie Mack III.
"I am not the establishment candidate. You're going to hear from him in a minute," LeMieux said. "United States Senate is not a crown to be passed from father to son."
Mack, a member of Congress, told the group he could spend his half hour answering attacks from LeMieux, but he'd rather talk about issues. But he then ripped into LeMieux for his ties to former Gov. Charlie Crist, who abandoned the Republican Party in a failed independent Senate bid two years ago. LeMieux ran Crist's campaign for governor and then served as his chief of staff before the then-governor tapped LeMieux to fill the last 16 months of Mel Martinez' Senate term.
Mack said LeMieux helped Crist shape policies that promoted big government and said his current conservative positions are a makeover.
"I know April Fools' is tomorrow, but I don't think we're going to fall for it today," Mack said.
McCalister positioned himself as the type of outsider needed in Washington.
"What we've done in the Senate is like we've done in too many other offices, we've made it all about who's the media darling, the party chosen one or the biggest fundraiser," McCalister said. "Just like in the workplace you don't promote people to just any job and promote them up."
LeMieux was asked about his Crist ties and whether it would be political baggage to Republicans. The Republican nominee will try to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
Crist "disappointed us, no one more than me," LeMieux said. He then added that when Crist left the GOP, he immediately endorsed Republican nominee (and now U.S. Sen.) Marco Rubio while Mack waited another four months to give his endorsement.
Asked to point out other differences, LeMieux listed several.
"He voted to raise his pay when he was a member of the United States Congress. I would never do that. I think members of Congress should take a pay cut until they balance the budget," LeMieux said. "Number two is he voted to raise the debt ceiling and I voted against that twice and I'll never do it because we've got to have something to stop this crazy, out-of-control spending."
Then in a personal jab, LeMieux said Mack's most significant non-elected job was promoting the Hooters restaurant chain.
When Mack was before the panelists, they picked up on some recent attacks, such as whether he has spent enough time in his congressional district and missed too many votes. Mack said he'd rather talk about issues.
"It's unfortunate that we're in a political climate these days that says I'm going to attack my opponent because I don't have any real good ideas or I want to cover up something I hope people don't know about me," Mack said. "My life is an open book. I'm proud of what I've done in the Congress. I'm proud of fighting for the principles we believe in."
The first question he received was how he felt about family dynasties in politics.
"I got to watch a very good man in my father serve this country. I'm proud of what he's done, I'm proud of what he stands for and I've learned from him," Mack said. "You want your kids to follow in your footsteps? I want my kids to follow in my footsteps. I don't think it's anything to be ashamed of, anything we need to run from."
After the forum, when he heard about LeMieux's comments on the Senate seat being passed from father to son, Mack said, "That's laughable, considering George was crowned by Charlie Crist to be in the United States Senate and has never won an election in the state of Florida."
During the forum, Mack also attacked LeMieux's record working behind the scenes with Crist on policies that conservatives weren't always comfortable with. "There's another person in this race who has a track record that I don't think is one that we can trust. Most of his career he's spent pushing policies supporting things like the (2009 economic) stimulus plan. That's not what we support. For most of his career he was someone who believed in bigger government," Mack said.
And in closing his remarks, Mack made light of attacks against him over a string of altercations in his early 20s, including a bar fight with then-baseball star Ron Gant and two road rage incidents. "I'm frustrated that in this campaign and as we campaign for the future, that people are more interested in personal attacks instead of the issues. I will put my record up against anybody, but I tell you what, one of the things they got right is that I am a fighter," Mack said. "I'm going to fight what I believe is right and I'm not going to let anybody tell me any different."