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Dave Weldon strives to make a race of it against Connie Mack in GOP Senate primary

Yes, there still is a Florida Republican U.S. Senate primary.

But what once was expected to be an expensive, competitive contest Aug. 14 has instead been pared down to a longshot former congressman vs. someone so sure he'll win that he isn't even really running.

Rep. Connie Mack IV, the far-and-away frontrunner, is saving his dollars and criticism for incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson.

But Mack's chief GOP rival, former congressman Dave Weldon, insists the primary isn't quite settled.

"I'm definitely picking up endorsements, and we're getting more and more volunteers and Web hits every day," Weldon told the Times/Herald. "Can we make up what we need … ? I don't know, but it's exciting."

To be sure, the decisions by state Senate President Mike Haridopolos, former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux and Marco Rubio ally Adam Hasner to drop out of the race has removed much of the drama from the primary.

And it's hard to know if Weldon's campaign is taking off in any serious way, in part because polling groups and national political observers have ignored the GOP Senate primary in Florida since LeMieux dropped out of the race in June.

But there are some subtle signs that Republicans are unsure if Mack is the right person to challenge incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson in November.

On Monday, the editorial board of the Palm Beach Post recommended Weldon over Mack, suggesting voters are supporting Mack because they believe that his father, former Sen. Connie Mack III, is back on the ballot. Weldon also won the recommendation from the editorial board of the Tampa Bay Times. And the Naples Daily News editorial board withheld its endorsement, calling Weldon "bright," "extremely well informed" and "experienced" while criticizing Mack.

U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Melbourne, who serves with Mack in Congress, state Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala and state Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla all recently endorsed Weldon. Weldon, 58, served in Congress from 1995-2009, representing parts of Brevard, Osceola and Indian River counties.

"Weldon has an excellent chance of coming from behind and being the Secretariat in this race," said Hays, referencing the famous racehorse. "He's definitely a thoroughbred, I'll put my money on the thoroughbred."

Weldon, a physician who is seeing patients as he campaigns, acknowledges he's a long shot in a race where Mack dominates in name recognition, campaign spending and an A-list string of endorsements that includes Mitt Romney and former Gov. Jeb Bush. Mack has newspaper endorsements, too — from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Fort Myers News-Press and the Tampa Tribune.

He also has the advantage of campaigning since November, while Weldon waited to enter the race until May 18.

"Nothing is in the bag for anybody until the election is closed and the results come in," said Bill Bunting, who is part of Mack's Pasco County campaign. "But Republicans want the current Senate put out of office. And with the polls the way they are, Connie Mack is the way to do that."

Though Mack, 44, continues to speak and meet voters around the state, he has avoided spending any significant resources on the primary, saving his money for fall TV time. Mack also has declined invitations to debate his GOP rivals — who include retired Army Colonel Mike McCalister and Marielena Stuart.

Weldon put Mack in a debate anyway.

The Weldon campaign produced a quirky Web video of a fake debate that pits a smiling, articulate Weldon against a knuckle-headed Mack. Asked about funding for stem cell research, Weldon calls it immoral and medically invalid. Mack's mock reply: "Huh?"

Martin County home inspector Tim Hackett, 62, who phones voters and walks door-to-door for Weldon, said the Weldon campaign has a buzz that feels tangible. The campaign says it's gone from 100 to 300 volunteers in the past month.

"There's more enthusiasm, there's improved communication in the ranks, and you can see all these new endorsements coming down … which I think has served to motivate those who know (Weldon) to work harder for him," Hackett said.

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at 850-323-0353 or at bdavis@tampabay.com.

Dave Weldon strives to make a race of it against Connie Mack in GOP Senate primary 07/31/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 31, 2012 11:19pm]
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