1. Opinion

Bill Nelson's opponents frequently melt away

Published Jun. 26, 2012

Before he headed to Congress from Orlando, Dan Webster was the first Republican speaker of the Florida House since Reconstruction.

One of the men who succeeded him as speaker was Allan Bense of Panama City, who like Webster, served with distinction. Both men won praise from both parties for even-handedness.

Republican Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater received nearly 3 million votes in the 2010 general election, more than any other candidate, despite running in a down-ballot race.

Besides being successful GOP politicians, what do Webster, Bense and Atwater have in common?

All three took a long, hard look at running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Bill Nelson, and all three decided against it.

Astute politicians often won't run for an office they don't think they can win.

Nelson won his first term in the Senate in 2000, after Republican Connie Mack III retired after two terms.

It was the fourth time in a decade that Nelson, a former state insurance commissioner and candidate for governor, had appeared on a statewide ballot.

Nelson got 51 percent in defeating Republican Bill McCollum, with 46 percent. Six years later, Nelson crushed Republican Katherine Harris, whose decision as Secretary of State in 2000 to halt manual ballot recounts sealed her fate as an object of scorn by Democrats. Nelson defeated Harris, 60 percent to 38 percent.

Webster and Bense both strongly considered taking on Nelson in 2006, but both would have had a hard time beating Harris.

Now, Nelson is chasing a third term, seeking to remain the last Democratic statewide officeholder in Florida.

Republicans have a deeper bench of capable candidates than Democrats do. But the best the GOP can come up with against Nelson this time is Connie Mack IV, son of the former senator and a member of Congress since 2004 whose past as a one time consultant for Hooters is not very, well, senatorial.

But Mack's huge lead in the polls in a weak Republican primary field led former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux to quit the race last week. That leaves little-known rivals, including retired U.S. Army Col. Mike McCalister and former U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, standing between Mack and a November matchup with Nelson.

Nelson is not invincible. Far from it. All summer and fall, TV viewers will see ads featuring endless freeze frames of a smiling Nelson alongside President Barack Obama.

He'll be pilloried as a liberal. But Nelson has raised nearly $12 million, has deep family roots in the Panhandle, and has won statewide office four times.

He runs scared, even when he's ahead, and a Quinnipiac survey last week showed Mack four points behind him.

Mack decided not to debate his GOP rivals in the primary, which may prove to be a strategic mistake, because the practice would have been good for him. Mack won't be able to duck a TV debate in the fall against Nelson, an experienced debater.