Five Republican candidates are gunning for his seat, but Florida Sen. Bill Nelson is busy focusing on a far more enticing target: Gov. Rick Scott.
The second-term Democrat has had little to say about the muddled GOP field of prospective challengers. But when it comes to the unpopular and unorthodox first-term Republican governor, he appears to relish the combat.
Over the past year, Nelson has crossed swords with Scott over issues as wide ranging as high-speed rail funds, changes in election law and drilling in the Everglades.
For Nelson, it's a savvy — if not intentional — strategy: Why elevate little-known opponents struggling to gain distinction when you can score points with Democratic primary voters by flogging one of the most politically radioactive figures in the country?
"From a political strategy, is Scott a good foil? Sure. He's a pretty polarizing figure and the most significant figure in the state," said Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale. "But I wouldn't necessarily assume he's going after these issues because of the campaign. These are issues he's worked on his whole career."
Nonetheless, Scott was still being used as a political piñata at the state party's convention last weekend, where Democrats expressed confidence that a backlash against his agenda would boost their prospects. Scott's job approval rating has been mired in the 30s for months, according to public polling. A new Suffolk University survey taken last week measured his favorability rating at 29 percent.
Nelson aides insist their boss' particular objections are strictly policy-driven. "It doesn't matter who's governor; it matters what the governor does," said Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin.
But over the past 10 months, the senator has grabbed more headlines for locking horns with Scott than with any of the GOP contenders for Senate.
Their most recent clash came last week, when Nelson called on Scott to repeal a new law that limits how various groups can go about registering voters. The plight of a high school civics teacher who faces a possible fine after organizing a voter registration drive prompted a furious response from Nelson.
"After this incident with the teacher, can anyone actually say we aren't taking a step backward in Florida when it comes to protecting one of our most fundamental rights? I hope you and every Floridian, regardless of political party, will stop and re-examine this controversial law," Nelson wrote in a letter to Scott.
In February, Nelson sparred with the governor over federal funding for a high-speed rail system between Tampa and Orlando.
Scott's controversial decision to reject the funds spurred Nelson to make an end around, appealing to Amtrak to partner with localities to cobble together a last-minute bid. But time ran out, and Nelson lambasted Scott for making a "huge mistake" that would cost Floridians "24,000 jobs in the immediate future."
When Scott appeared to endorse an expansion of drilling in the Everglades in early September, Nelson brushed him back, with his spokesman telling the Associated Press it was a "wacky" idea. A spokesman for Scott later walked back the governor's statement.
Nelson has even nudged Scott on AIDS funding, urging him in a letter to make it a priority "to help some 10,000 individuals who depend on public assistance because they cannot afford life-sustaining AIDS drugs."
"I realize it's convenient for conservative-minded reporters to write that elected officials are treating Florida's governor as a boogeyman for political reasons. But the fact is, he's done some really scary stuff since his election — stuff that Sen. Nelson would (have) or has opposed, regardless of who's governor," McLaughlin said.
Dave Beattie, Nelson's longtime pollster, said quarrels with Scott are politically unavoidable. "He's one of the least popular figures in the country. It's not hard to run into Scott on a controversial issue."
As Scott bears the brunt of Nelson's attacks, the Republicans vying to replace the senator are itching for attention.
Hampered by low name recognition, former Sen. George LeMieux, who held the office for only 16 months, former state Rep. Adam Hasner, retired Army Col. Mike McCalister and restaurateur Craig Miller all have languished in polling. Rep. Connie Mack's signal that he'll enter the race in the coming weeks makes it even more uncertain a clear front-runner will emerge by spring.
The 69-year-old Nelson, who has a $7.5 million war chest, for now won't boost his opponents' profiles with an acknowledgment.
"Nobody knows who they are. Anything he does to talk about Adam Hasner and George LeMieux gives them more air than they have now. So what's the utility in doing that?" Schale said.
Alison Morano, vice chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, said the fluidity of the field is more reason for Nelson to be trained on state issues.
"The Republican field changes every day. I don't blame him for not engaging. There's no one really to talk to," she said. "If you look at the state of Florida and all the problems now, it goes directly to the governor."
LeMieux said Nelson's tendency to pick fights with Scott is an effort to distract from his votes on health care, financial regulation and spending laws that are increasingly unpopular with the Sunshine State electorate.
"He's trying to engage in issues that misdirect folks from what he's done in Washington. That's more 'don't look at what I'm doing, look at (what) someone else is doing,' " LeMieux said. "I'll stand with Rick Scott with what he's trying to do here. He can stand with Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi."
Nelson's team maintains he's following the same playbook he has maintained during his four previous statewide campaigns: stockpile money for television ads, keep expenses lean with a small staff and limit the length of the actual campaign.
"The goal is to wait as long as possible," Beattie said. "His philosophy is serve as long as you can, campaign the least you can."
POLITICO and the St. Petersburg Times have partnered to cover the 2012 presidential election.