WASHINGTON -- One of the unexpected winners in Tuesday’s Republican presidential primary in Florida wasn’t even on the ballot: Congressman Connie Mack.
The leading Republican candidate in the U.S. Senate race, Mack earned national media exposure stumping across the state for Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor went so far as to anoint the 44-year-old Mack in campaign stops as “the next senator from Florida.”
That endorsement helped drive Mack’s opponent, Adam Hasner, out of the race this week and into a congressional race in South Florida. Another GOP challenger, Craig Miller, exited to run for a congressional seat, too, leaving only former Sen. George LeMieux as a serious GOP challenger.
Other Republican candidates may remain in the race, but Mack is acting the part of frontrunner, and is backed up by polls. Among likely Republican voters, Mack leads LeMieux 38 to 12 percent, according to a Mason-Dixon poll released Jan.27 and conducted for the Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9, and Central Florida News 13. Mike McCalister registered 7 percent in the poll.
Mack has aimed his campaign rhetoric squarely at the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson.
Mack supported Romney in 2008, too. But he called the week he spent on the campaign trail with Romney “a huge benefit” in developing a relationship with a presidential campaign that ran hard in Florida.
“I had the opportunity to be with the guy who won the primary, and to work with him and on his behalf,” he said.
It certainly got him attention in a big state with multiple media markets, where campaigns are won and lost on television, and require healthy fundraising to pay for it all.
As a Romney surrogate, Mack did two local television appearances from Fort Myers on the day of the primary. He did eight additional regional or local television appearances, and then appeared on FOX News in the evening. Along with his wife, Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack of California, Mack appeared on CNN’s Piers Morgan show at midnight. And on Wednesday morning, he was on CNN, CNBC, and MSNBC.
It’s in marked contrast to Nelson, who was absent when President Barack Obama traveled to Orlando last month to announce a tourism jobs initiative at Disney World.
Nelson’s campaign had no comment Tuesday on the reshuffled GOP Senate field. The Mason-Dixon poll shows Nelson with a three-point lead over Mack, 45 to 42 percent. Other polls have similar findings. A Jan. 11 Quinnipiac University poll had Nelson up 41 percent to Mack’s 40.
“The election’s still (9) months away and Bill’s just focused on doing his job,” said Nelson’s campaign spokesman, Christian Robinson. “The politics will take care of itself.”
A LeMieux spokeswoman zeroed in on the suggestion by some pollsters that Mack has high name recognition largely because he shares a name with his father, the former Florida senator whom Nelson replaced in 2000.