WASHINGTON — It's not even 2011, and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson already has a big target on his back for 2012.
Buoyed by November's GOP wave and eager to get a head start in what could be a crowded primary, Republican legislators and congressmen are wasting no time taking on Florida's senior senator, deserting an unwritten rule against legislators aggressively attacking members of the state's congressional delegation.
"It's clear that Bill Nelson is out of touch with Florida, and that's why there is so much activity already in advance of 2012,'' said former state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, one of several potential challengers.
Republicans have long viewed Nelson as vulnerable in Republican-leaning Florida, and Nelson said it's no surprise they're already circling as he'll soon be the only statewide Democratic office holder.
"What else do you expect after an election like 2010? People think the results of the 2010 election gives them a certain momentum,'' Nelson said.
Florida Democrats lost four seats in Congress thanks to a Republican surge fueled by attacks on the health care law, the poor economy and government spending, the same conditions that gave Republican Marco Rubio his overwhelming Senate victory. Come January, the GOP will control the U.S. House and enjoy a whittled-down Democratic majority in the Senate.
Nelson, 68, said there is no question he will seek a third, six-year term. The uncertainty is how tough the challenge will prove.
"If the economy's in the toilet, it's a much tougher race for me,'' he acknowledged. "But I don't expect that. I expect the economy will be improved. I just don't know how much."
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It could be a crowded GOP primary:
• Outgoing Sen. George LeMieux, 41, of Broward County, appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist last year to fill the unexpired term of Mel Martinez, is aggressively testing the waters to take on Nelson. Crist's former chief of staff and campaign manager has drawn generally strong reviews in Washington from party activists but is untested as a fundraiser and he would have to overcome doubts about his conservative bona fides because of his close association with Crist.
"If there was someone who could do the job as good as me or better, then I might feel relieved to be able to go home and spend more time with my kids," said LeMieux, who offered former Gov. Jeb Bush as the only example of someone for whom he would happily step aside.
• State Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, has all but announced his candidacy. He is not well known statewide, but his legislative position will enable him to raise considerable money and elevate his profile.
"I was conservative before conservative was cool,'' said Haridopolos, a 40-year-old university lecturer and consultant who may be the nominal frontrunner. "I've been a consistent conservative my entire career and made a career converting the Florida Senate from a liberal-to-moderate place, where liberals and trial lawyers and tax advocates won, to a place that is unquestionably fiscally conservative now."
Haridopolos has been firing salvos against Nelson for months. In July, he sent Nelson a letter seeking answers to what he deemed pressing questions about Florida's future. Six days later, with no response, Haridopolos issued a news release using his Senate office letterhead.
"It is important that Floridians know what Sen. Nelson plans to do in the coming months as our state's senior senator to make up for the inaction they have seen," it read.
• U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fort Myers, has taken a similarly aggressive posture against Nelson. Just before Election Day, his campaign issued an unusual fundraising appeal that lacked any reference that Mack was on the ballot for the U.S. House. Instead it cast Nelson as a liberal "professional politician."
Mack, 43, followed up with another attack on Nelson and President Barack Obama after the November unemployment numbers were released.
Thanks to sharing the name of his father, the former Florida senator, the younger Connie Mack IV already enjoys the kind of statewide name recognition most other contenders lack. That may give him more time than others to decide whether it's worth risking a safe congressional seat.
"I haven't made any decision to run. I haven't made any decisions not to run,'' said Mack, who is married to U.S. Rep. Mary Bono of California. "Some of my very good friends around the state have called and encouraged me to run. But this is a decision I'll have to make on my own time, and I don't feel the time is now."
• Former state House Majority Leader Hasner, 40, is talking to key Republican leaders across the state and country and expects to make a decision after the holidays.
Hasner, one of the first prominent elected Republicans to publicly criticize Gov. Crist, is little known in much of the state but is well connected and can raise money across the country from Jewish Republican operatives. He is married to a savvy campaign strategist, Jillian Hasner, who most recently managed Meg Whitman's gubernatorial campaign in California.
"The feedback that I've received has been very positive from across Florida and around the country,'' said Hasner, a Boca Raton resident.
• U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, has long been viewed as a future Senate candidate but lately sounds more focused on his new post as the only Floridian on the influential House Ways and Means Committee. A multimillionaire who can self-fund a campaign, Buchanan, 59, has the luxury of waiting until late in the political season to decide his future.
"I'm staying focused on the job I just got re-elected to do,'' said Buchanan.
• Plant City Republican Mike McCalister declared his candidacy Dec. 6 in the Villages. The retired Army colonel was a late entry in the race for governor this year and took a surprising 10 percent of the vote in the GOP primary, which helped Rick Scott defeat Bill McCollum.
Inevitably, there will be more candidates, including some newcomers to the political scene.
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For many years, members of Florida's congressional delegation refrained from openly criticizing one another, but Mack makes no apologies.
"Times have changed. People are paying much more attention now than they have in the past. They want somebody who believes in the individual, not in government, that believes in a limited government, not an ever-expanding, growing government,'' said Mack.
In a sign he may be gearing up, Mack recently brought onto his congressional staff David James, a political operative who worked with longtime Mack campaign consultant Arthur Finkelstein.
"(Nelson) has been crafty over the years to try to make it look like he's moderate. But the people of the state of Florida have caught on to those games,'' Mack said.
Republican opponents have long tried to cast Nelson as too liberal for Florida, with little success. In 2009, a National Journal ideological ranking based on select votes cast Nelson as a centrist — the 39th-most liberal senator and 60th-most conservative.
There are signs Nelson is already tacking to the right as the next election cycle begins.
He was one of only seven Senate Democrats to vote for a ban on earmarks, just two weeks after defending the money he has secured for Florida as valuable to jobs and security.
Last week, Nelson endorsed a compromise that would extend the Bush-era tax cuts for all wage earners, including the wealthy, for two years — a provision liberal Democrats decried as untenable but one Republicans insisted on.
"I support it because it will stimulate the economy," Nelson said of the package, which includes additional unemployment benefits and tax cuts for the middle class.
Nelson has enjoyed some luck in his past two campaigns, with Republicans failing to nominate especially strong challengers. In 2006, he beat Katherine Harris by more than 20 percentage points and in 2000 he beat then-U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum by 5 percentage points.
"I approach every election like it's going to be the toughest I've ever had," Nelson said the other day in the U.S. Capitol. "That's what I'm going to continue to do — do a good job and reflect the people that elected me."
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