Florida Sen. Bill Nelson in unfamiliar political territory

LAKE BUENA VISTA — If you're Sen. Bill Nelson, you must feel good about the campaign year ahead: flush with $7.5 million in your campaign account; President Barack Obama preparing a massive get-out-the-vote campaign for Florida Democrats; a crowded Republican primary lacking any titans and promising to be bloody.

But spend a little time chatting with Florida's senior senator, and it's clear the state's most durable politician is walking on volatile and unfamiliar political territory.

An aggressively cautious middle-of-the-roader, Nelson, 69, now lives in the tea party era where hyper-partisanship reigns. The Orlando Democrat is far and away the longest-serving statewide politician, with four decades under his belt. This at a time when voters say they're fed up with incumbents and, especially, Washington politicians.

"It's a lot easier for people of like political minds to talk to each other and to reinforce each other and to stir each other up. That is contributing to the polarization in American politics, that you get people willing and able only to talk to others who think exactly like they do, instead of being out there talking to everybody," Nelson said. "You have a lot more tendency to pull things apart in politics now than you did just six years ago."

Much of what he has understood about winning campaigns no longer applies so much in the era of social media and minute-by-minute cable news cycles.

"If you'd had told me somebody could get elected governor by dissing every editorial board of every newspaper in this state, I wouldn't have believed it," Nelson, referring to Republican Gov. Rick Scott, said in a wide-ranging interview during the state Democratic Party's 2011 convention on Saturday.

Nelson does not sound especially worried. He said he has no immediate plans to start aggressively campaigning, and dismissed any notion that he would try to distance himself from Obama.

"That's a nonissue," he said. "I am what I am. I call them as I see them. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I don't. This is not anything new."

Nelson has supported every major Obama initiative — the economic stimulus, repealing the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, Wall Street reform, the health care overhaul — and his Republican rivals cast him as a liberal in Washington who pretends to be moderate in Florida.

Nelson is a politician who tends to inspire neither passionate excitement, nor passionate opposition, but there's no question he is vulnerable.

A poll by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling early this month found only 40 percent of Florida voters approve of his performance, while 32 percent disapprove. At the same time, he comfortably led the four major Republican candidates: Adam Hasner, George LeMieux, Mike McCalister and Craig Miller. The field will soon include U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV, son of the former senator of the same name.

"I look forward to the coming campaign against you as you try to explain your strong support for the stimulus, the TARP, Obamacare, raising the debt ceiling, and countless other liberal programs that have left Florida and the nation in the most precarious economic position in generations," Mack said last week in an "open letter" to Nelson. "Sen. Nelson, there's no question you have a lot of work to do to overcome the fact that you are part of the problem, not part of the solution."

The same day, Nelson noted, his wife, Grace, spent four hours working with former Sen. Mack in South Florida on relief for Haiti.

Nelson sounded variously wistful and frustrated when he talked about the state of Washington and politics today. He waxed on about former congressional leaders including Everett Dirksen, Tip O'Neill, George Mitchell and Trent Lott, who would work with leaders on the other side to get things accomplished.

"I hope I'm not a dinosaur," Nelson said, laughing. "The problem is if you want to get anything done, you've got to do what I'm trying to do, which is make government work by building consensus, and do it in a bipartisan way, in a nonideological way."

Nelson is the last remaining statewide-elected Democrat in Florida, and his tone of nostalgia was fitting at an often listless state party convention where activists spent much of the time honoring Democratic icons no longer on the political stage — former Gov. Reubin Askew, former Attorney General Janet Reno and former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, among them.

Graham on Saturday blasted the current Republican-controlled state government, citing education cuts, restrictions on voting and voter registration, and sweeping changes to growth and water management policy.

"Would you believe we turned back the clock 40 years in one session of the Legislature?" Graham asked.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson in unfamiliar political territory 10/29/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 29, 2011 11:56pm]

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