ST. PETERSBURG — Demonstrating just how volatile the race to unseat Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is two months before the Aug. 14 primary, Pinellas County Republicans delivered a surprise straw poll victory to little-known but fiery U.S. Senate candidate Marielena Stuart.
"I am very excited," Stuart, 56, said after the announcement. "I am on my way to Washington."
Cuban-born Stuart railed against President Barack Obama, Roe vs. Wade, communism in China and Cuba, and popular tea party targets like Agenda 21 during her 15-minute speech.
Straw polls don't often carry much weight — take Herman Cain's sizable win during Florida's Presidency 5 straw poll in September. But the Pinellas group got it right early on in the 2010 Florida Senate race, choosing Marco Rubio over hometown Gov. Charlie Crist months before Crist left the Republican Party.
On Monday, Stuart nabbed 110 votes, former Sen. George LeMieux took 69 and frontrunner U.S. Rep. Connie Mack — who didn't show for the poll — took 12. Former Rep. Dave Weldon got five votes, and retired Army Col. Mike McCalister, who also didn't attend, got four.
LeMieux attacked Mack for bowing out of the straw poll and other appearances. Mack, the four-term congressman who received a slew of recent big-time endorsements from the GOP establishment, has declared himself the clear choice to face Nelson but has not fared well in straw polls. The other candidates are polling in single digits, but they're not ready to concede.
"He won't come before you because he wants to just be crowned for this election. Well, we're not going to have a coronation in Florida. We're going to have an election," LeMieux said.
Mack has declined to participate in a July 26 debate co-sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and Florida PBS, saying a primary fight would only help Nelson. He couldn't make the straw poll, his spokesman said, because of a previously scheduled private event.
His recent endorsements include former Gov. Jeb Bush and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, with whom he will appear in Orlando today.
LeMieux suggested Mack's well-known father, former Sen. Connie Mack III, was responsible for the widespread support.
"I think the father has a tremendous amount of good will," he told the Times editorial board Monday.
Stuart, a linguist and conservative online columnist, spoke of an occasion in which she was beaten and abandoned in a field in Cuba by the communists, "and it is America who saved my life." She called herself the daughter of a former political prisoner. She described the country's open borders with Mexico and Canada as the beginnings of a one-world government.
"America has become a socialist nation. And socialism is nothing but phase one of communism," she said.
Her speech brought most of the crowd to its feet. Stuart has no formal campaign staff, relying on her husband Thomas, daughter Elena, 14, and son John Paul, 12, to take pictures and pass out fliers. She said she has been campaigning since the fall.
She's a "female Ronald Reagan," said Kevin Thornhill, a member of the Pinellas Patriots, a 9-12 Project group.
All of the Republican candidates trail Nelson's $9.5 million campaign account. Mack comes closest with $1.38 million, though LeMieux isn't far behind at $1.19 million. Stuart had $6,500 in hand as of March 31. Weldon, who just entered the race in May, has not yet reported his fundraising.
"I know the odds are stacked against me," he said during a separate Monday meeting with the Times editorial board.
A 14-year former congressman and doctor from the Space Coast, Weldon painted himself as the most "authentic" social conservative in the race. He pointed to efforts to ban human cloning and fetal farming and co-sponsoring a federal "conscience clause" that prevents discrimination against health care providers who do not provide abortions.
"I had a friend in Washington say to me, 'I'd love for you to run, I'd love for you to win because since Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback left the Senate, we really haven't had a champion in the Senate,' " Weldon said.
Katie Sanders can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or [email protected]