October 17, 2012 at 11:51 am
Like a headlining musical duo, Sen. Bill Nelson and GOP challenher Connie Mack are getting together for one night only.
After months of swiping at each other from afar, the two U.S. Senate hopefuls finally meet for their lone debate tonight, giving voters a chance to compare the candidates side-by-side.
For Mack, the four-term Republican congressman from Fort Myers, it’s a chance to introduce himself to a statewide television audience and parade his conservative voting record. And for Nelson, the Democratic U.S. senator seeking his third term, it’s an opportunity to sway centrists and fend off attacks from outside spending groups putting millions into television ads.
To date, Nelson has had a virtual wire-to-wire lead in the polls. Real Clear Politics, which averages out several polling groups, puts Nelson at a 6.7-point advantage heading into the debate.
Nelson’s lead largely comes from independent voters, and he’s kept a moderate tone on the campaign trail.
“I think the people of Florida know that throughout my career, I’ve put Florida first,” he said in prepared remarks at a Central Florida campaign stop last week. “I haven’t emphasized the Democrat or the Republican way. But I’ve tried to do what’s right for Florida.”
Mack’s campaign puts the race closer to a dead-heat, citing a survey from conservative-leaning Rasmussen that has Nelson with a 1-point edge. Mack, who has also closely aligned his campaign with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, also could benefit from the former Massachusetts governor’s resurgence in Florida.
“The momentum in Florida is with Romney-Mack,” deputy campaign manager David James said in a statement. “The GOP ticket is pulling ahead of the liberal Obama-Nelson team hourly and daily, and the latest Rasmussen numbers confirm what our internal polls have been showing for some time.”
Kathryn DePalo, a senior lecturer in the Department of Politics & International Relations at Florida International University, said Mack enters with the most to gain. The challenger needs to energize his campaign after a summer dogged by negative press and character attacks from Nelson, DePalo said.
Focusing on issues could help Mack, who disagrees on most every topic — health care, the federal debt, domestic energy, government spending — with the incumbent.
“That’s really what the Republicans are looking to get — that energy and enthusiasm against Bill Nelson, which shouldn’t necessarily be that hard to do,” DePalo said. “He needs to turn this around and show he’s a mature, serious candidate who could be a U.S. senator.”
While most U.S. senate candidates in contested states will debate three or four times before Election Day, Nelson and Mack could only agree on one date. Mack pulled out of one debate sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times after a kerfuffle with the newspaper’s political editor, and Nelson nixed an Oct. 30 debate because it was too late in the election season.
In the end, the debates might matter little, DePalo said, if neither candidate can shift attention away from the presidential campaign.
“I’m not sure how many voters are paying attention, and I think that’s part of the problem of this race,” she said. “Voters aren’t really focused on the U.S. Senate right now.”
– Jacob Carpenter, Naples Daily News