DESTIN — Rick Johnson, a financial adviser from Shalimar, is worried.
"I know it's a tough time in Washington, but another four years of deadlock is not going to move this country forward,'' he told U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV at a brief campaign stop last month in Walton County. "It's a recipe for disaster."
Mack didn't hesitate with the answer. "We're going to get this country back and that means more jobs, more security and more freedom," he said. "I appreciate you coming out."
It doesn't get more complicated than that for Mack, 45, a nine-year Republican congressman from Fort Myers who is challenging incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson for the U.S. Senate.
The antidote to the nation's debt crisis, its budget stalemate and its health care woes are clarion clear to Mack, who describes himself as "proud, mainstream conservative."
"Freedom is the core of all human progress,'' he told an audience in Tampa last week. "It believes that nothing's given to us, but if you're willing to work hard, if you're willing to compete, the American dream is there for you."
The solution to the debt: a penny per dollar reduction in the nation's spending. The "Penny Plan" would balance the budget in 10 years, Mack said, a claim Congress' independent budget arm acknowledged can be done. The cost is estimated at $7.5 trillion, including deep cuts to Social Security, Medicare and the Defense Department.
The budget crisis: Mack voted against the House Republican budget advocated by Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan last year, arguing that even though it was necessary to avert a government shutdown the proposal "doesn't balance the budget soon enough."
Health care: Mack wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a program that includes giving seniors a fixed-benefit Medicare entitlement that depends primarily on the private market.
On each of these issues, Mack sees compromise as weakness. He's not afraid to stand on principle, even if it puts him in the minority within his own party or delegation. In 2005, for example, Mack was the only Florida delegation member to oppose an oil drilling compromise that imposed a 150-mile buffer along Florida's coast. He supports more oil drilling closer to shore.
And Mack is not among the Republicans who has tried to distance himself from Mitt Romney's controversial "47 percent" remarks, referring to the percentage of Americans who do not pay income taxes and are "dependent" on the government.
"Clearly, he was discussing our economic system, which because of excessive government interference, often hurts the very people it's meant to help and creates a tax system that is wildly disproportional across our economy,'' Mack said.
Mack's confidence in the mantra of "more freedom, less taxes" stems from the success of his father, Connie Mack III, who employed the same themes in his two Senate campaigns.
"He believes in basically the same thing I believe in — a smaller, limited government that gives more individual freedom, that lowers taxes to create growth and fewer regulations to give an opportunity for the development of new jobs,'' the elder Mack said. "As a dad, it's kind of exciting to see that your son follows what you believe in so strongly."
While the famous name — his great-grandfather was the baseball icon — and conservative message are the same, the circumstances surrounding the two Mack campaigns are distinctly different. The elder Mack narrowly defeated Democrat Buddy MacKay in his 1988 race for the U.S. Senate with the help of the coattails of Vice President George H.W. Bush.
Mack has benefitted from Romney's surge in the polls in Florida, as his poll numbers show his race tightening against Nelson. But, unlike his father, he has been helped enormously by independent conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity, Crossroads GPS and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which reportedly will spend more than $30 million on Mack's behalf.
Much of the message has been misleading about Nelson's record. Mack's campaign has repeated a claim that Nelson voted for higher taxes more than 150 times and on Friday expanded the number to 272, even though the number double counts votes and includes procedural, unrelated votes and fails to take into account the votes in which he lowered taxes. Mack has also falsely charged Nelson with being the deciding vote for President Barack Obama's health care reform.
Nelson has criticized the attacks as "partisan extremism" and emblematic of "the problem with politics today."
Mack shook up the Senate primary in November 2011 when he suddenly jumped into the race. His family name made him the inevitable nominee.
He easily won the primary against former U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon with 58 percent of the vote and briefly led Nelson in the polls over the summer.
But his campaign has struggled to get traction, despite a steady stream of attack ads run by the conservative, third-party groups against Nelson. The latest RealClearPolitics average of polls has him down 5 percentage points. A new Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9 poll of the bellwether Interstate 4 corridor has Nelson leading Mack there by a narrow 3 points, 47 percent to 44 percent.
Since he was first elected to the state House in 2000, Mack's positions on the issues have often tacked to the right of his own party.
He now tells supporters he was "tea party before the tea party was cool. We decided that we weren't going to let leadership, whether it was Republican or Democrat, pass new taxes, new fees, new regulations. We were going to stand up and stop all those things."
Mack's Fort Lauderdale district stretched across the state into Fort Myers and when former U.S. Rep. Porter Goss retired to become CIA director, he left the Legislature to run for Congress in a special 2003 election.
But after 12 years in elected office, he does not point to any signature accomplishment and is at a loss to describe a bipartisan initiative he championed.
Mack's record in public service has been overshadowed on occasion by troubles in his personal life.
His first marriage ended in a 2006 divorce and it was followed by unpaid bills, bounced checks and other financial problems. In 2007, he married California Republican Rep. Mary Bono, the widow of singer and congressman Sonny Bono, raising questions about how much time he was spending in Florida.
His opponents have dredged up reports from 1989, when at the age of 22 Mack was arrested while at a Jacksonville nightclub, and three years later, when he got into a bar brawl with Atlanta Braves outfielder Ron Gant.
Mack has acknowledged his troubles, and his campaign said his bar brawls occurred when he was "young and foolish." Mack's opponents have used his personal history to tar him as unfit for the Senate, but he argues they are irrelevant to judging his character today.
"Even if it were all true, who cares? That's not affecting people today,'' he tells reporters.
The campaign turned to Mack's mother to mend the residual damage. In a TV ad released this month, Priscilla Mack speaks to the camera as father and son sit in the background.
"My Connie was a good kid. A bit of a handful — we mothers understand. Who would have thought he wants to change the world? But he does,'' Priscilla Mack says. "My son Connie will be a great senator, just like his dad."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected]iamiherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.