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Voters deserved better in Florida Senate race

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, left, and Republican candidate Rep. Connie Mack IV have conducted lackluster campaigns.

Associated Press photos

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, left, and Republican candidate Rep. Connie Mack IV have conducted lackluster campaigns.

Alongside a quiet country road in North Florida stands a big campaign sign.

"Connie Mack: The Game Changer," it reads.

It's another overworked sports analogy by the great-grandson of baseball Hall of Famer Connie Mack.

But Mack's sign is at least half right: On Election Day, either Mack, a Republican congressman, or his Democratic opponent, two-term U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, will change careers.

Mack IV is trying to follow in the footsteps of his father, Connie Mack III, a U.S. senator from 1988-2000. But the son lacks his father's endearing gap-toothed smile or political luck: Mack III ran for an open seat and narrowly defeated Democrat Buddy MacKay, who was forced to run on the same ballot with the hopeless Michael Dukakis in Florida.

Nelson is the Democratic equivalent of the boy with his finger in the dike, trying to hang on as the only statewide elected Democrat in the soon-to-be third largest state.

A Mack victory would relegate Democrats to a historically weak status in the annals of state politics.

But the larger story is that Nelson and Mack should both hang their heads for collaborating on what may be one of the least interesting U.S. Senate races in Florida history.

My personal vote for the most entertaining moment in this race was that day in June when former GOP candidate George LeMieux dropped out of the Senate race and endorsed Mack, after having called him "the Charlie Sheen of Florida politics."

In their only live televised debate two weeks ago, Mack and Nelson spent much of the hour calling each other a liar.

Mack calls Nelson a "lockstep liberal" and Nelson has highlighted Mack's missed votes on Capitol Hill and his "history of barroom brawling."

Voters deserved better, even though hate-mongering in Senate races in Florida is not new.

Florida has a rich, colorful past of memorable Senate races, none better than the historic 1950 race between Claude Pepper and George Smathers, which set the state on a course of ugly, mud-slinging Senate races.

As journalist James C. Clark writes in his book, Red Pepper and Gorgeous George, that race created the playbook of using the "L-word" — liberal — as an epithet in Florida Senate races, a tactic Mack has continued to use all summer and fall.

But let's not forget the improbable statewide walking campaign by a little-known state senator, "Walkin' Lawton" Chiles in 1970, or the 1986 race in which Democratic Gov. Bob Graham unseated one-term Republican Paula Hawkins.

The Nelson-Mack race: Game changer?

Maybe. Maybe not.

The best news of all is that this game is almost over.

Senators serve six-year terms, so these races don't come along very often.

When they do, they should be worth the wait.

This one isn't.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com.

Voters deserved better in Florida Senate race 10/29/12 [Last modified: Monday, October 29, 2012 11:25pm]
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