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Analysis: Why Connie Mack's Senate candidacy may be game-changer, not game-ender

By suddenly and unexpectedly jumping into Florida's Republican U.S. Senate primary, Connie Mack has at least made a lackadaisical race more exciting.

But while the congressman with the familiar last name may have changed the game, he hasn't ended it. Whether the field of major candidates is four men or five, the race seems as wide open as ever.

"It's going to get a lot more fun," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Mack, 44, of Fort Myers will take on former state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner; former Charlie Crist adviser and interim U.S. Sen. George LeMieux; retired Army Col. Mike McCalister; and former Ruth's Chris CEO Craig Miller.

Republicans in Washington and in Florida spent the summer worrying the field was not strong enough to defeat incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who has been building a big fundraising advantage and continues to lead the polls.

So in steps Mack to carry the GOP to victory, right? In several key areas, he has as many drawbacks as advantages.

Name recognition: Thanks to his dad, former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack III, Mack starts out with a familiarity that would normally cost significant money on TV for any other candidate to build. A February Sachs/Mason-Dixon poll found Mack the strongest Republican against Nelson, who led Mack 45 percent to 40 percent.

That said, a Mack has not been on the statewide ballot for 15 years — ancient history in Florida. Consider that 9.2 million of Florida's 12.1 million voters have registered since the elder Mack was on the ballot. What's more, Rep. Mack represents one of the smallest media markets in Florida, which doesn't help him much.

Money: Mack has never been known as a champion money-raiser, though he has his father's network to tap and can rely on the contacts of his wife, U.S. Rep. Mary Bono Mack of California, who is Sonny Bono's widow.

Mack is getting in the race late with less than $350,000 in his House account, about one-third of what LeMieux has and about half of what Hasner has (which doesn't include some conservative outside groups that could spend heavily for Hasner).

Grass roots: There's plenty of goodwill for Connie Mack III among longtime Republican activists, but his son has hardly been a regular on the Lincoln Day and Reagan Day dinner circuit. Despite the name, he's not especially well known among most grass roots activists who in recent years have seen tons of Hasner and, more recently, LeMieux. McCalister is also making a hard play for the tea party vote.

Issues: Mack voted against the stimulus and the bank bailout. On those points alone he'll draw support.

But he also has been willing to cross the conservative base. Mack didn't just disagree with Arizona's tough anti-illegal immigration law, he excoriated it as "Gestapo"-like and un-American. Ask Bill McCollum or Rick Perry what can happen to a Republican campaign when it's depicted as soft on immigration.

He will have to explain to primary voters his support for embryonic stem cell research, another hot-button issue. Mack also supported Crist over Marco Rubio in the 2010 U.S. Senate race, which Rubio won.

• • •

It's no secret that D.C. elites, though officially neutral, have been casting for a higher-profile candidate, one they may have found in Mack.

His entrance "stinks of the same Washington establishment games too many Republicans have played for far too long," said Nancy Peek McGowan, a prominent conservative activist and fundraiser from Jacksonville who is backing Hasner.

Mack carries some baggage, too. He has been criticized for not spending enough time in Florida due to his wife, and some Republicans are still raw over the messy divorce from his first wife that he set in motion when his children were just 6 and 3.

Yet, he's still likely to quickly climb to front-runner status, a fear reflected in reactions from his rivals Thursday.

Hasner said, "Washington is the problem, not the solution," fixing Mack to the record-low public approval rating for Congress. McCalister made a similar point. LeMieux said Mack would need to explain why he voted for earmarks (left unsaid was that LeMieux never requested an earmark in his short time as a senator but voted for appropriations bills loaded with them.)

Mack, who did not do interviews Thursday, would not have entered the race without thinking he could win, and he is arguably the strongest general election candidate to take on Nelson.

The big GOP primary field may offset his downsides because any votes Mack loses can go to one of the four other candidates.

"What sloughs off Mack doesn't go to an obvious alternative," said GOP strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, who is unaffiliated. "It fragments across the field."

In any event, challenges await — and time is running. The primary is in August.

"I think Nelson can be beaten, don't get me wrong," Stipanovich said. "But if the election were held today, pick any one of those guys in the field, I'm guessing they'd lose."

U.S. Rep. Connie Mack

The family

• Baseball and politics in his blood. His great-grandfather was the baseball legend, and his father represented Florida in the U.S. Senate for two terms ending in 2001.

• His parents, Connie Mack III, 70, and Priscilla Mack, 69, live on Palm Island in Charlotte County.

The politician

• Mack — Cornelius Harvey McGillicuddy IV is his given name — represented the Fort Lauderdale area in the Florida House from 2000 to 2003, earning a reputation as a fiscal conservative.

• When Republican Rep. Porter Goss announced his retirement from a southwest Florida district that Connie Mack III used to represent, the young Mack jumped. . Has not had a serious challenger since 2004.

• Mack's voting record reveals a fiscal conservative with libertarian tendencies. He voted against the bank bailout and the stimulus.

• As chairman of the House subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Mack has railed against Venezuelan ruler Hugo Chávez, calling him a "thugocrat" who works against American interests.

• Mack sees himself as a forerunner to the budget-slashing mood that defines Republicans and the tea party.

• Mack is a party loyalist, voting with the GOP 97 percent of the time in 2010 and 2009. But Mack has gone against the grain — such as supporting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and his opposition to Arizona's tough immigration law.

The wife

• Ask people in Washington about Mack and one thing comes instantly to mind: his marriage to California Republican Mary Bono, the widow of pop star-turned-politician Sonny Bono.

• Good looking and youthful, the couple are as close to celebrities as Washington gets. It has boosted his profile. But it has also caused some discomfort about an ugly divorce, projecting a socialite image and how much time he spends in his district.

• Mack said he and his wife spend time together in Washington and then usually go separate ways on the weekend — the opposite situation from other lawmakers. Another incentive to be in Florida, he said: an 11-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son from his first marriage are in the state.

Analysis: Why Connie Mack's Senate candidacy may be game-changer, not game-ender 10/27/11 [Last modified: Thursday, October 27, 2011 10:38pm]
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