By Marc Caputo
Former Sen. George LeMieux abruptly quit Florida's Republican U.S. Senate race on Wednesday, all but guaranteeing that frontrunner Connie Mack will be the party's nominee.
LeMieux was behind in fundraising, behind in name identification and behind in big-name endorsements when compared with Mack, a sitting congressman from Fort Myers and the son and namesake of a former Florida senator.
"Ahead of us in the polls, the Mack name enjoys widespread recognition that can only be matched with substantial advertising or the opportunity to debate on statewide television," LeMieux said in a video address posted on YouTube.
He lamented that Mack refused to debate him on television and that "our finances cannot support" a major advertising campaign. In Florida, competitive statewide campaigns burn through at least $1 million a week on television in the final days.
Mack, meanwhile, received word Tuesday that he was about to be on the receiving end of a $1 million contribution from Las Vegas gaming magnate Sheldon Adelson, a Republican contributor who planned to deposit the money in an independent political committee, Freedom PAC, established to get Mack elected.
Mack entered the race relatively late last year after Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos dropped out.
When Mack entered the race, former Florida House Republican leader Adam Hasner called it quits and ran for a congressional seat instead.
Mack quickly garnered major endorsements, notably from former Gov. Jeb Bush, current Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
LeMieux stayed in, but he struggled in great part because of his association with former Gov. Charlie Crist, who had left the GOP amid a bitter Senate campaign against Marco Rubio in 2010. That Senate seat was held on an interim basis by LeMieux, who had been appointed by Crist after Mel Martinez left the Senate.
LeMieux waged a tough campaign against Mack for months. LeMieux's campaign produced a mocking, cartoonish web ad that accused the congressman of being a "half Mack" when compared with his father and great-grandfather, a baseball legend.
LeMieux also repeatedly bashed Mack for skipping votes in Congress and for having little private-sector job experience outside of working as a consultant for the Hooters restaurant chain. The Democratic incumbent, Sen. Bill Nelson, who has more than $9 million in the bank, is expected to reprise those criticisms of Mack in the general election.
As Mack stumbled and LeMieux froze in the polls, Republicans tried to recruit other candidates to run for the seat. Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater considered running for Senate, but opted to stay put. Former U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon entered the race recently, but with little name ID or money, it will be exceedingly difficult for him to succeed. Other little-known Republican candidates include Deon Long, Mike McCalister and Marielena Stuart.
Though LeMieux had said Mack didn't have the "character" to serve in the U.S. Senate, he decided that having Nelson there was worse.
"To continue would only hurt our chances in the fall, and that is not something that I will risk. Connie Mack will be our nominee. He has my support," LeMieux said. "As a former party chairman, I know that sometimes for the good of the party, and the good of the nation, a candidate has to bow out gracefully. In order to have the best chance to defeat Bill Nelson and put the Senate in Republican hands, today we will end our campaign."