The exit of Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos from the Republican U.S. Senate primary race should have brought clarity to the contest.
Instead the picture is muddier than ever.
Former Sen. George LeMieux, now the best-funded candidate, is suddenly aggressively attacking former state Rep. Adam Hasner as a phony conservative with a record of voting for tax and spending increases.
Hasner has started landing major GOP establishment support, but shows little sign of momentum among rank-and-file voters.
And a Quinnipiac poll last week found more than half the voters are undecided, but the front-runner is Mike McCalister, an obscure candidate most veterans of Florida politics wrote off as barely credible.
Meanwhile, speculation about another candidate jumping in, perhaps a very wealthy one, is rampant among Republican strategists in Florida.
"I don't think the field is set," said Republican consultant Apryl Marie Fogel, echoing others. "It is a wide-open field, and clearly the candidates that are in the race aren't exciting anyone. There was some expectation that Hasner was going to pick up steam — he's gotten a lot of good press, he's done all the right things — but he's clearly not resonating (with conservatives) the way Marco Rubio did."
In the past few weeks though, Hasner has lined up some of the most elite GOP money-raisers in Florida, including some of the main financial backers of former Gov. Jeb Bush and Rubio. Consider the list: former Ambassadors Norman Braman of Miami, Al Hoffman of North Palm Beach, Earle Mack of Palm Beach, John Rood of Jacksonville and Ned Siegel of Boca Raton. St. Petersburg developer Brent Sembler, who had been helping Haridopolos, is also with Hasner.
"I can say without question that Adam Hasner is far and away the best candidate we can send to Washington to stand shoulder to shoulder with Sen. Marco Rubio," said Hoffman, former finance chairman to the Republican National Committee. "Adam is the only candidate in this race who has consistently demonstrated mainstream conservative principles and who can be trusted to go to Washington and fight for those principles."
The eventual nominee will take on two-term Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson.
Hasner, a lawyer and former state House majority leader from Boca Raton, wants to cast the campaign as a choice between him and LeMieux. At every opportunity, Hasner notes that he was an early critic of former Gov. Charlie Crist's moderate positions, while LeMieux was Crist's longtime top adviser.
But it's not just a Hasner-vs.-LeMieux contest.
The July 27-Aug. 2 Quinnipiac poll of registered Florida voters found 53 percent of Republican voters are undecided, 15 percent support McCalister, 12 percent LeMieux, 8 percent former Ruth's Chris chief executive Craig Miller of Winter Park, and 6 percent Hasner.
"Adam Hasner is not gaining traction in the grass roots, because he's trying to be something he's not — an outsider, anti-establishment grass roots politician," said Buzz Jacobs, the campaign manager for McCalister.
As much as the Hasner campaign tries to dismiss McCalister, the retired Army colonel from Plant City poses a serious obstacle at this point. They're both targeting tea party conservatives, and even Hasner allies acknowledge McCalister cuts into Hasner much more than LeMieux does.
"I'm a grass roots conservative Republican, and when I travel around and talk to people around the state, they see Mike McCalister as more conservative than Adam Hasner," said Starla Brown, an activist in Hasner's home county of Palm Beach.
"People aren't as trusting of those who have the establishment political background, and when I look at his voting record, I don't see the kind of conservative I'm looking for," she said, referring to votes for spending increases, tax increases and earmarks.
McCalister, who ran for governor in 2010 and received about 10 percent of the primary vote, had less than $12,000 on hand as of June 30, compared to $840,000 for LeMieux and $472,000 for Hasner. Whether he can mount a credible statewide campaign remains uncertain.
"Conservatives are rallying around our campaign because they know in the end, it will come down to a choice between a trusted limited-government conservative and Rubio ally Adam Hasner vs. self-described 'Charlie Crist Republican' George LeMieux," said Hasner campaign spokesman Douglass Mayer.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.