TALLAHASSEE — Republicans aren't waiting until the primary to start attacking Democratic Senate candidate Patrick Murphy in an effort to define him before he can define himself, a sign they believe that the U.S. congressman will be the nominee and the tougher candidate to beat in November.
The race in Florida is being closely watched because it could it tilt the U.S. Senate back to Democrats. Incumbent U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio initially said he wasn't going to run for a new term, but changed his mind at the last minute.
The GOP focus so far has largely targeted Murphy as someone who embellished his resume by highlighting his work as a certified public accountant and a small business owner who helped clean the Gulf oil spill. Murphy was only licensed as a CPA in Colorado, not Florida, and the small business he refers to was set up by his wealthy father and only had a minuscule role in the Gulf cleanup.
But Murphy has some big supporters helping him fight back. President Barack Obama has recorded radio and television ads for Murphy, one of which tells viewers to not believe the attacks.
Murphy's campaign ran them at a perfect time — during the Democratic National Convention when the most devoted party faithful were glued to their televisions. Vice President Joe Biden is also planning his third Florida stop on behalf of Murphy this week and a PAC attached to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is also plunking down $1 million in ads to boost Murphy.
"There's millions of millions of dollars being spent against me by outside groups," Murphy said. "They decided that they were going to attack me, and I'm sure from here on out, because they would probably love to run against Congressman (Alan) Grayson, but that doesn't change who I am, that doesn't change what I'm fighting for and what I want to do for Florida."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has spent $1.5 million and the Senate Leadership Fund PAC has spent $1 million on Murphy attack ads, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee has spent a much smaller amount on ads hitting Murphy in the Washington area. A PAC attached to Reid has spent $1 million defending him and the Murphy campaign spent about $1.7 million on ads featuring Obama, who told viewers not to believe the attacks against Murphy.
The Obama ad was a smart strategy, said Democratic pollster David Beattie, who isn't working for either campaign.
"Obama is very popular with Democratic primary voters," he said. "It's saying, 'Don't believe the other things that you're hearing' and it's delivered by a credible messenger."
Still, Grayson's campaign is grateful for the assist ahead of the Aug. 30 primary.
The negative ads will hurt Murphy even though they may boost his name recognition, said Grayson campaign manager Mike Ceraso.
But Grayson, a Democrat from Orlando, has troubles of his own.
While he has been popular with progressives, last week he was hit by allegations from the mother of his children that he abused her for two decades. Grayson denied the allegations, and said that she is the one who hit him and their five children. Still two progressive groups have rescinded their endorsements.
He has also been dogged by ethics complaints over an offshore hedge fund he managed.
Republicans would rather face Grayson, a firebrand liberal, than Murphy, a moderate who has the backing of the party establishment and the resources that come with it. But considering how large Florida is — there are nearly 12.3 million registered voters — the GOP strategy is to try to knock down Murphy now before he gets a boost from a primary victory. He's still largely unknown, and Republicans want to cast a negative light before voters pay more attention to him.
"Republicans are going to use every tool we have to make sure voters know Patrick Murphy is a fraud," said Greg Blair, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.