Criticizing the Republican House budget isn't just for Democrats, anymore.
Republican Congressman and Senate candidate Connie Mack called the budget plan, drafted by fellow Rep. Paul Ryan, a "joke" during a weekend Orlando Tea Party forum. Mack, who missed the Ryan plan vote in Washington last week while he was fundraising in Florida, later said through a spokesman that he would have voted for it anyway.
Mack spokesman David James also sought to clarify that Mack didn't mean to criticize the conservative plan itself — which President Obama roundly bashed Tuesday in a campaign-style speech.
"The vote was the 'joke,' as in the process being a joke, not the Ryan plan itself. And Connie said the vote was a joke," James said in an email. "He supports the Ryan plan but the process is a joke when the GOP House continues to do the right things and the liberal Senate under (Majority Leader Harry) Reid and (Florida Sen. Bill) Nelson continue to kill fiscally responsible measures."
Still, Mack clearly criticized the Ryan plan itself when he was asked about a string of missed votes in Congress, including the budget plan.
"I was here in Florida campaigning," Mack said Saturday, according to an undisputed quote reported by the conservative Florida Political Press. "You know that budget was a joke, doesn't balance the budget for years."
Comments like that can be deadly to Republicans this campaign season. Last year, conservatives were outraged when Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich dissed the first Ryan plan.
Mack also chided then-Senate candidate and state Senate President Mike Haridopolos last year for waffling over the Ryan plan. Haridopolos ultimately withdrew from the race for other reasons and has endorsed Mack. Mack, Ryan and Haridopolos have all endorsed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has praised Ryan's budget plans.
Haridopolos' trouble with the Ryan plan had everything to do with votes. It restructured Medicare and gave Democrats the opportunity to bash the cuts to programs for seniors, Florida's most-crucial slice of the electorate.
The latest Ryan plan goes easier on Medicare in favor of deeply cutting other entitlement programs like Medicaid, which also helps seniors by, for instance, paying for roughly two-thirds of nursing home costs in Florida.
Obama bashed the latest Ryan plan as irresponsible and a type of "social Darwinism." Republicans say Obama wants to raise taxes, doesn't know how to manage the economy and has failed to propose a spending plan that garnered any significant support from members of his own party.
Mack believes that "big government" programs need to be scaled back to balance the budget. His spokesman said Mack prefers his "Penny Plan" to trim government spending and balance the budget. But, in the absence of a Penny Plan vote, Mack supports what Ryan is trying to do.
"Connie would have voted for it," James said, "He knows people are of sick of Washington gimmicks and an absence of any plan to balance the budget from liberals like Bill Nelson."
Nelson's spokesman, Dan McLaughlin, shot back at the Mack camp by saying they're recycling a "debunked" claim that originated with former Senator and current Republican Senate candidate George LeMieux.
"Sen. Nelson, as a member of the Senate Budget Committee, did pass a budget. But rigid ideologues blocked it from getting a vote in the full Senate," McLaughlin said.
Right now, the most recent statewide poll shows Nelson is beating Mack by a comfortable margin, a lead that's likely a reflection of Obama's better standing these days, a damaged GOP brand and the improved economy. Mack is also handily beating LeMieux.
Still, the polls are likely to tighten as the campaign stretches on. Mack took on LeMieux at the Orlando tea party forum by noting he was the brains behind former Gov. Charlie Crist, widely reviled by Republicans as a turncoat after he left the party. But, like LeMieux, Mack also backed Crist while he was in the GOP.
As with a February Republican Senate forum, Mack appeared to have trouble connecting with the conservative audience at the Saturday tea party forum and ultimately came in last place in a three-way straw poll that LeMieux won.
LeMieux, who has mocked Mack for being a loose cannon, capitalized on Mack's remark and for his missed votes that include a jobs bill and a measure to temporarily extend highway funding.
"Paul Ryan's Budget is not a joke, Connie Mack the Fourth is a joke," LeMieux said. "Mack the Fourth claims to be serious about our financial crisis but as soon as something more fun comes long, he skips the vote on the budget. Mack is absolutely mistaken if he thinks the people of Florida will promote him to the Senate when he doesn't even show up for work."