ORLANDO — Though down in the polls, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Adam Hasner was Friday's straw poll winner — by just a few percentage points — at the Conservative Public Action Conference.
Hasner got 34 percent of the vote, with retired U.S. Army Reserve Col. Mike McCalister right behind him, pulling in 30 percent. Former Sen. George LeMieux also was in striking distance, with 24 percent of the 1,500 ballots cast. Craig Miller garnered about 12 percent.
Pollster Tony Fabrizio, a Gov. Rick Scott adviser, announced the results at the CPAC meeting, noting they were not scientific but a good benchmark of the sentiment of the tea party, which makes up the most influential bloc of the GOP.
"It is certainly indicative of where these grass roots conservatives are going in the Senate race," Fabrizio said. "The truth of the matter is it's a close race. It's not an overwhelming lead. It's four percentage points."
Public polls paint a different picture of the race. A Quinnipiac University survey and another poll from Gainesville-based War Room Logistics show that Hasner trails in the race, with LeMieux in the lead and McCalister running second.
Both surveys show that about 60 percent of Republican voters are undecided. It's a sign of how little-known these candidates are in an election season when the Republican presidential candidates command all the attention.
Regardless of who wins the Republican primary for Senate, incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson would win in a theoretical matchup right now, the polls show. Nelson is the only Democrat elected to statewide office in Florida — a result of having weak opponents and a credit to his ability to model himself as a centrist. The Republicans say he's a liberal clone of President Barack Obama.
Sounding anything but centrist, the Republican candidates addressed the CPAC conference and a nearby gathering of Republican Party of Florida voters on Friday.
Hasner noted that U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a conservative darling, appointed him to be the state House Republican leader while Rubio was speaker in 2007 and 2008.
"He called me the most partisan Republican in Tallahassee. He meant it as a compliment. The mainstream media tried to make it an insult. I made it a badge of honor," Hasner said.
Hasner vowed to fight Washington and said the nation "shouldn't be afraid of a shutdown" in government.
The candidates refrained from attacking each other directly, though Hasner hurled veiled barbs at LeMieux by noting the legacy of former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-independent whom LeMieux advised for years.
"When our former governor, my friend, left the Republican Party, the very next day I endorsed Marco Rubio," LeMieux said. Before that time, though, LeMieux was actively involved in undermining Rubio's candidacy and leading the effort to dig up opposition-research on him.
McCalister won the most applause for warning of the dangers of communism, illegal immigration, "radical Islamic aggression," liberal judges and the United Nations' Agenda 21 initiative — a strategy he said was an effort to take away gun rights.
McCalister, who has been criticized by veterans and even a general for embellishing his military record, said he would combat the problems by cutting taxes and regulations and beefing up the military.
"My friends, Ronald Reagan had it right," he said. "You threaten us, we win. You lose."