TAMPA — A wealthy but little-known businessman jumped into Florida's Republican U.S. Senate race Tuesday, calling himself the candidate for Main Street and muddying an already unsettled primary.
Casting himself as the candidate of the people while flying a private plane across the state may not have been the most persuasive approach, but former Ruth's Chris restaurant CEO Craig Miller did highlight the business experience lacking by his main rivals.
"I started in the dish room and worked my way — with hard work, determination and faith — to the boardroom," said Miller, 61, announcing his candidacy at quick airport press conferences in Tampa, Orlando, Naples, West Palm Beach and Jacksonville.
"I have been paying attention to Main Street," he said. "Folks in Washington, particularly Bill Nelson, have not."
Before he takes on Democratic incumbent Sen. Nelson, though, Miller has to get past at least four Republican candidates — former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos, former state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner and former U.S. Army Col. Mike McCalister.
The larger the GOP field grows, the more unpredictable the primary. Anyone could win with just 25 percent of the vote.
Meanwhile, Nelson remains the heavy favorite, announcing Tuesday he had raised another $1.85 million over the past three months and has $6 million in his campaign account. Nelson's second-quarter haul is almost double the top Republican in that period, LeMieux with more than $950,000.
The Republicans face the prospect of spending most of their money in the primary and entering the general election with little left to take on Nelson.
Miller, a Vietnam veteran from Winter Park, hopes he offers the kind of outsider appeal the others lack.
His message appears to differ little, though: federal spending is out of control, the stimulus package failed, "Obamacare" is wrong, and cap-and-trade energy proposals should be fought.
What separates him is experience, said Tom Tillison, a tea party activist in the Orlando area.
"Craig Miller shares the frustration that the tea party has with the political system. He's got the real world experience that we need in Washington, particularly with the economic challenges we face. . . . These guys were all products of Tallahassee. They're all career politicians,'' said Tillison, referring to Hasner, Haridopolos and LeMieux.
Miller was ousted from Ruth's Chris in 2008, as the chain's profits and stock price plummeted. According to the Orlando Sentinel at the time, he received a $2.4 million severance package.
He has said he does not intend to bankroll a Senate campaign, which could cost millions, although he spent nearly $560,000 of his own money running for Congress in 2010. Republican former state Rep. Sandy Adams ultimately won that race.
He wound up about 1,600 votes shy of winning the primary, and showed himself to be a bare-knuckled campaigner. At one point, Miller's campaign openly questioned the mental stability of one Republican rival, Karen Diebel, who in turn attacked him as soft on illegal immigration.
As chairman of the National Restaurant Association in 2006, Miller wrote an opinion column for the New York Times endorsing a comprehensive immigration package backed by then U.S. Sens. Mel Martinez and Ted Kennedy.
"The economic consequences of removing the one in 20 employees who are undocumented from America's workforce would be devastating," Miller wrote.
Miller has repeatedly said his immigration stance was distorted and said Tuesday he learned from his unsuccessful congressional run.
"Losing a political race doesn't exclude you from trying again," he said. "I have a lot to say. I'm willing to talk about anything."
Other Republicans are taking a wait-and-see approach to Miller's unpredictable candidacy.
"Good luck to him,'' said Haridopolos campaign manager Tim Baker.
"I met him once. Seems like a nice guy,'' said Hasner, while campaigning Tuesday in the Tampa Bay area.
Meanwhile, the millionaire heir to a banking fortune, Republican Nick Loeb of Delray Beach, said Tuesday he is still considering jumping in the race but won't make up his mind until after Labor Day.
"It's way too early,'' said Loeb, who lately has been generating publicity as the boyfriend of actor Sofia Vergara, from the television show Modern Family.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.