WASHINGTON — Connie Mack IV is blessed with a golden political name that would make him an instant Republican front-runner against U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in 2012.
But even as early polls show the congressman from Fort Myers as the strongest challenge to the Democratic incumbent, in many respects he's the most unpredictable candidate eyeing the race: a fiscal conservative with a maverick streak that includes supporting stem cell research, defending WikiLeaks and denouncing Arizona's tough immigration law as Gestapo-like.
Those views could be radioactive with the tea party base, or serve as the straight-shooting authenticity many voters crave.
"I don't think he does it for positioning, I think it's because he has conviction," said Republican consultant Sally Bradshaw, who is neutral in the race. "I think there's room in this primary for someone who takes risk and is bold."
The telegenic, 43-year-old former state legislator and marketing consultant is testing the waters to represent all of Florida while his congresswoman wife, Mary Bono Mack, lives 2,500 miles away and critics already accuse him of spending too little time at home.
For months Mack has been setting the table for a statewide run: filling his congressional staff with veteran political operatives, taking shot after shot at Nelson, and raising his profile nationally and in Florida. He just hired a full-time fundraiser who is aggressively scheduling events for his political committee, including one on Friday night at the Naples Ritz-Carlton.
Other contenders include state Senate President Mike Haridopolos, former state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux and Nick Loeb, a wealthy former state Senate candidate.
"There are a lot of people around the state who have been encouraging. I'm honored," Mack said in an interview in his office last week. "Whether I run or not, I will continue to hold Bill Nelson's feet to the fire. I think the voters of Florida deserve to know who he is."
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The son of a senator and grandson of a baseball legend, Connie Mack IV (Cornelius Harvey McGillicuddy IV is his given name) represented the Fort Lauderdale area in the Florida House from 2000 to 2003, earning a reputation as a staunch fiscal conservative.
He and Haridopolos founded the antitax "Freedom Caucus," which even butted heads with then-Gov. Jeb Bush when Bush sought to delay a cut in Florida's intangibles tax.
When Republican U.S. Rep. Porter Goss announced his retirement from a southwest Florida district that Connie Mack III used to represent, the young Mack jumped. The surname was a decided advantage, despite accusations that he was a carpetbagger from Fort Lauderdale. Mack lost Lee County, where he bought a house, but he has not had a serious challenger since 2004.
Mack's voting record reveals a fiscal conservative with libertarian tendencies. He voted against the bank bailout and the stimulus. While many Republicans offered meek or slow responses last week when Gov. Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion from the federal government for high-speed rail, Mack praised him. "We're broke," he said.
Mack sees himself as a forerunner to the budget-slashing mood that now defines Republicans and the tea party. "I've been part of the voice inside Congress," he said.
He is a party loyalist, voting with the GOP 97 percent of the time in 2010 and 2009. But in some high-profile cases, Mack has gone against the grain — issues that could hurt him in a bid for higher office, such as supporting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
"Congressman Mack is not going to attract much attention or interest from social conservatives,'' said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council. "I am unaware of anything he has done to champion life, marriage or family issues, and he is not going to be able to ride the coattails from his father's outstanding service."
Last year, Mack was a vocal critic of Arizona's immigration law, which would have required people to carry immigration papers and present them to police. Mack called it an affront to the freedom of U.S. citizens who may get confused for illegal immigrants.
"This is not the America I grew up in and believe in," he said in April, comparing the law to the Nazi-era Gestapo. As the words hit the Drudge Report, criticism washed in from across the country. Mack was called weak, a Democrat.
"If you're going to stand up for freedom," he said last week, "it's freedom for all Americans."
Sensitive to how that may play in a Republican primary, his supporters note that Mack has called for tough border security and say his position on discrimination has been expressed by other Republicans.
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The idea of freedom that Mack talks about was formed when he was a teenager, he said, sweeping floors and doing grunt work at a Cape Coral boat-making business run by a Cuban exile, Augusto "Kiko" Villalon, who filled him with tales of living under communist rule.
It's easy to envision a GOP primary opponent exploiting Mack's views, painting him as shaky on abortion or not tough on immigration and national security.
"If there're consequences, there're consequences," he said. "But I have to stand up for what I believe in. I only have one shot at being who I am in politics."
He has also crafted another image — as the No. 1 critic of Venezuelan ruler Hugo Chávez. As chairman of the House subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Mack has railed against all things Chávez, calling him a "thugocrat" who works against American interests.
Mack said he started to focus on Chávez when he landed on the Foreign Affairs Committee in his first term. Often there would be discussions about Iran and Cuba and only scant mention of the Venezuelan leader.
"The more I understood about who Hugo Chávez is, the more engaged I became."
Mack spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington this month, focusing almost entirely on Chávez. It drew a muted response, another case of Mack following his own path.
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Ask people in Washington about Mack and one thing comes instantly to mind: his marriage to California Republican Mary Bono, the widow of pop star-turned-politician Sonny Bono.
Good looking and youthful, the couple are as close to celebrities as Washington gets. It has boosted his profile. But it has also caused some discomfort about an ugly divorce, projecting a socialite image and how much time he spends in his district.
Mack said he and his wife spend time together in Washington and then usually go separate ways on the weekend — the opposite situation from other lawmakers. Another incentive to be in Florida, he said: a 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son from his first marriage are in the state.
"The reality is he's working hard, but he's not always as visible as some people want," said Dennis Pearlman, a veteran political strategist and Mack supporter in Fort Myers. "He's got a wife in California and job in Washington, and he's doing the best he can doing town hall meetings and those types of things."
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Mack insists he has not made up his mind about running for U.S. Senate and supporters say his name ID buys time. But time is money. Mack's friend and former Tallahassee roommate, Haridopolos, is locking up endorsements and recently raised $1 million in a single day.
"I've been anxious. People start making commitments already. I wanted the congressman to announce yesterday, but we're letting him take his time making a very personal decision,'' said Jorge Arrizurietta, a top GOP fundraiser in Miami and former aide to Sen. Connie Mack eager for the younger Mack to run.
The timing may never be better: Nelson is vulnerable, according to polls that show Mack as his strongest rival unless Bush gets in; there's no GOP heavyweight like Bush in the mix so far; Mack starts out with the strongest name recognition; his fiscal conservatism meshes with the current political mood; a Connie Mack hasn't been on the statewide ballot since 1994; and the longer U.S. Rep. Mack waits, the less his name resonates statewide.
Florida's other Senate seat is held by Republican Marco Rubio, 39, who likely has a long career ahead.
"This may be his shot," said Jennifer Duffy, who studies Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "The name is worth some dollars. It's a huge help."
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