The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can Connie Mack defeat Bill Nelson in Florida?

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Rep. Connie Mack IV cruised to victory on Tuesday in Florida's Republican Senate primary, winning nearly 60 percent of the vote against nominal competition he barely acknowledged during the campaign.

But toppling Sen. Bill Nelson, a likable second-term Democrat with a nearly $9 million campaign account is a considerably more demanding task. Mack begins the race as an underdog, but not one without a path to victory. To pull an upset, he'll need to tighten up a shaky campaign.

It's a tall order, but one that is eased a bit by GOP third-party groups rallying to his side and a name that is very well-known in the Sunshine State.

Mack's Tuesday win was a testament to a weak Republican field, not the strength of his own campaign, which was unsteady. He picked fights with influential local reporters. His campaign offered a muddled reaction to Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) budget proposal. And he had to weather negative headlines about his checkered past including an account of a 1990s bar fight with a professional baseball player.

Despite all this, Mack remains competitive in the general election.

A Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times poll conducted in late July showed him trailing Nelson by seven points. A Mason-Dixon poll had Mack down by just five points.

One reason for Mack's viability is his last name. His father, Connie Mack III, was a U.S. senator. His great-grandfather is in the Baseball Hall Of Fame. The Mack name is well-known in Florida, and is well-respected.

But there is a reason why Nelson is not in the tier of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats this cycle. He has also cultivated a reputation in Florida, and one that is separate from his dealings in Washington. And he enjoys an encouraging level of support among seniors, an influential subset of voters in the state.

Yet Nelson is not content to simply count on Mack's miscues. Earlier this month, he released a harsh ad that zeroed in on Mack's personal problems. The ad also said Mack voted to end Medicare, a reference to his 2011 vote for the Ryan budget plan which proposed to revamp Medicare into a voucher system for Americans under 55.

Mitt Romney's selection of Ryan as his vice presidential running mate could leave a lasting impression on the Senate race in Florida, a state with a substantial senior population. Democrats will no doubt go on offense in the debate over the future of Medicare.

But so will Mack, who said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday that Nelson and Obama are the ones gutting the program. Republicans have been pointing to Congressional Budget Office estimates from July, which said that spending for Medicare “would increase by an estimated $716 billion” over the next nine years under an effort to repeal the federal health-care law.

Nelson and Obama "are living in glass houses and playing catch with rocks," Mack said.

Mack's underdog bid is also getting some crucial help from outside groups -- a key reason why he remains afloat in the race. The 60 Plus Association launched an ad campaign on Wednesday hitting Nelson. Already, Republicans have spent $9 million slamming the Democrat with negative ads. And billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has already written a seven-figure check to a pro-Mack super PAC.

"Connie is definitely looking stronger and that's attracting money to this race. The U.S. Chamber, super PACs are coming on board," said Florida Republican strategist Ana Navarro. "The money contest will be even or give an advantage to Mack."

Florida's tossup status at the presidential level will mean millions of dollars more in outside spending will be poured in over the next 11 weeks. If Romney wins the state, it would no doubt help Mack. Democratic-leaning automated pollster Public Policy Polling has generally found that Nelson runs ahead of Obama, but the latest survey showed that gap had narrowed.

Still, this isn't Nelson's first rodeo. He knows how to win statewide. He's held public office since the 1970s. And Mack's slip-ups afford Nelson a definite opportunity to personalize the race.

"Nelson's early ads against Mack are devastating, and he has the best campaign staff in Florida," said Florida Democratic strategist Todd Wilder. "They won't be making any big mistakes."

Mack's Tuesday win put him in a position to compete with Nelson. But there is little time celebrate for a candidate who needs to do nearly everything right to win in November.