DAVIE — Florida's sleepy U.S. Senate race saw a jolt of energy Wednesday night as Connie Mack IV came charging at Democrat Bill Nelson in their first and only televised U.S. Senate debate.
Mack accused Nelson of chronic tax-raising, of taking President Barack Obama's side over Florida Medicare beneficiaries, and even using cows to exploit a tax loophole. The 45-year-old Fort Myers congressman looked confident, stayed firmly on message and rarely let facts get in the way of his attacks on the 70-year-old incumbent senator.
"Bill Nelson cast the deciding vote to cut $700 billion out of your Medicare to pay for Obamacare. I voted against Obamacare," Mack said in his opening remark, a charge that PolitiFact Florida rates Mostly False.
"Bill Nelson voted for higher taxes 150 times — 150 times!" he continued, repeating a claim PolitiFact Florida rates False. "I've got a simple litmus test: If you voted for higher taxes 150 times, it's time for you to go."
It was a feisty 60 minutes at Nova Southeastern University, long on charges and counter charges and short on substance from the men vying for the world's most deliberative body.
Partly because the rules required no responses longer than 1 minute 15 seconds, and partly because Nelson and Mack spent most of the night ripping one another or not directly answering questions, the debate produced little beyond quick sound bites on policy.
Nelson looked variously bemused and exasperated listening to Mack.
"How can you argue with someone who just completely pulls it out," said Nelson, accusing Mack of routinely making things up, after Mack said he cast about twice many votes as Nelson last year. (The House casts far more votes than the Senate.)
At least three times, Mack used essentially the same line in the debate organized by Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association: "Senator, the people of the state of Florida are tired of you saying one thing to them and then going back to Washington, D.C., and voting with Barack Obama 98 percent of the time."
Nelson finally retorted, "Is that the only line that you have memorized?" drawing laughter from the audience.
Never in modern Florida history has a potentially competitive U.S. Senate race had as low a profile as Mack versus Nelson. The Democratic frontrunner has barely campaigned publicly and Mack has struggled to generate buzz even among party activists much more focused on the presidential campaign.
The average of recent polls compiled by RealClearPolitics shows Nelson leading by about 7 percentage points, though independent political committees have already spent more than $20 million on TV ads criticizing Nelson.
"Mitt Romney needs someone he can count on, and we need another Republican senator from the state of Florida," Mack said Wednesday night. "I'm asking you to stand with me, I'm asking you to stand with Mitt Romney."
Mack seized on his one opportunity to share a stage with Nelson by aggressively casting Nelson as a liberal ally of Obama, often using suspect or false charges.
He said several times that Nelson voted "to gut our military," referring to the budget deal approved last year that could lead to draconian budget cuts and tax increases by year's end if Congress fails to reach a new agreement.
"You were going to let this country go into default where it could not pay its bills. Obviously we could not do that," Nelson said, noting that Mack was in the minority who voted against the so-called sequestration plan.
When Nelson talked about cutting the budget deficit by eliminating tax loopholes, Mack twice referred to cows Nelson keeps on property in Brevard County that gets taxed as agricultural land.
"There have been cows on that property for 60 years," Nelson protested.
The two-term senator hurled loads of criticism, too: Mack has one of the weakest attendance records this year; that he filed a bill to help a hedge fund leader supporting his campaign and to help another campaign backer, Chevron, avoid a court judgment; that Mack improperly has two homestead exemptions (in fact Mack has a homestead exemption on Florida property, while his wife, U.S. Rep. Mary Bono Mack, claims her California property as a homestead); and that Mack supported a bill that would have redefined rape as "forcible rape."
"You keep talking about my record, apparently you must have looked somebody else up," Mack said, without specifically denying Nelson's charges.
Nelson kicked off the debate saying Washington needs leaders who can cooperate and reach across party lines to get things done, and afterward he said Mack showed himself incapable of that.
"This is what's happened to our politics. It's gotten out of control and untruthful because of extremism, and the good thing is Florida is in the mainstream," Nelson said, noting that Mack's father, former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack III, often worked in cooperation with former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham.
The senior Mack stood nearby.
"Cheap shot," he said when told of Nelson's remarks.
Former Sen. Mack gave his son's first high-profile debate performance strong reviews: "He has shown the people of Florida he is an extremely capable candidate for United States Senate. He looked senatorial, he looked in command, he looked in control. And as we would say in the Mack family, it was a grand slam."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @adamsmithtimes.