TALLAHASSEE — Florida voters get their only chance to see Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican Rep. Connie Mack IV square off against each other in a debate tonight at Nova Southeastern University in Davie.
The matchup follows a low-key campaign for the U.S. Senate in which Nelson, the 12-year incumbent from Orlando, has held a steady lead in the polls against Mack, the six-year congressman from Fort Myers.
Nelson's campaign has relied on television to convey his message in a barrage of negative ads attacking Mack for his personal financial woes, his divorce, his hard-partying youth and attendance record in Congress.
Mack is expected to come out swinging and continue the attacks being used by third-party groups who have been airing television ads on his behalf that attack Nelson's vote for the federal Affordable Care Act, his support of aid to Libya and his tax credits for farmland owned by his family.
The outcome of the Senate contest could determine the balance of power in the U.S. Senate and each candidate expects the debate to offer viewers a clear choice on the future of health care, entitlement reform, taxes and deficit reduction. The latest polls show Nelson ahead of Mack by an average of 6.7 percentage points, according to the RealClearPolitics.com. But recent polls have shown the gap tightening.
"The debate will be an opportunity for the voters of Florida to see a definitely different path for our country,'' said Mack spokesman David James.
Nelson spokesman Paul Kincaid said viewers "will see a contrast between a senator who has been fighting for the state and who works as a moderate and a candidate who newspapers have said is unqualified to be senator."
Mack has pushed back against Nelson's attacks, raising questions about the campaign's negative tone and launching a $1 million ad campaign this week featuring his mother, Priscilla Mack, who declares her 45-year-old son "a good kid, a bit of a handful." She adds, "We mothers understand.''
James said Nelson's attacks raise question about his campaign. "Is the best Bill Nelson can do after 40 years in government is run a smear campaign against Connie Mack?" he asked. "Where are the legislative accomplishments of Bill Nelson?"
The debate will be the only showdown between the two candidates. The campaigns had previously agreed to two debates but Mack, who has pursued a long-standing feud with a political reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, refused to take part in a debate hosted by both the Times and CNN.
When the Times agreed to pull out of the sponsorship of the debate and CNN offered to host a debate after early voting had begun, the Nelson campaign said the timing was too late.
Mack has since chided Nelson for dodging voters. Nelson's campaign counters that Mack agreed to no debates in the Republican primary against former U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon. "This is one more debate than he was willing to give voters in his primary,'' Kincaid said.