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Florida Senate Race Heats Up for GOP

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Sen. Bill Nelson has plenty of money in the bank and time to prepare for what’s expected to be a competitive re-election race in 2012. Republicans must first select someone to challenge the Florida Democrat, with three major candidates starting to campaign in earnest.

As Florida’s legislative session ends, the fight for the Republican nomination to take on Sen. Bill Nelson (D) begins in earnest. For the three major GOP candidates in the race, it’s going to be a long, nasty campaign slog, full of sound and fury.

The always-battleground Florida swung substantially Republican in 2010 — leaving Nelson the lone Democrat to hold statewide office — but 18 months out, Nelson finds himself in a surprisingly strong position.

“Do not underestimate him,” former Sen. Mel Martinez (R) told Roll Call. “I think he’ll be a formidable candidate in his re-election effort.”

The Republicans aiming to win over GOP voters and attempting to topple the two-term Democrat are state Senate President Mike Haridopolos, former state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner and former Sen. George LeMieux. LeMieux may have the most difficult task: distancing himself from the man who appointed him to serve two years as Senator, former Gov. Charlie Crist.

Crist became political anthrax when he fled the GOP to run as an independent against a surging Marco Rubio, who was poised to defeat him.

“There is no one more toxic in Republican circles than Charlie Crist,” said Phil Vangelakos, a Republican consultant based in Orlando.

Hasner has already leveraged LeMieux’s 2009 appearance with Crist, when LeMieux described himself “as a Charlie Crist Republican.” Hasner turned the news clip into a campaign Web ad via charliecristrepublican.com. The tagline of the video: “We need conservative reinforcements in Washington, not reinventions.” In all likelihood, some version of this video will be seen on TV before the primary is over, but LeMieux says voters are “too smart” to be distracted by those types of attacks.

“Who I worked for in the past is not going to decide this election,” LeMieux told Roll Call in an interview. He said he is the only major GOP candidate who never voted for a tax increase and noted his fiscally conservative record during his time in the Senate.

“It would honestly be a lot smarter for me — a guy who’s got four kids who are 7 and under, who has a really great job helping to run a statewide law firm — to not run. A lot of my friends think I need to have my head examined,” LeMieux said, adding that the debt crisis is why he wants his job back.

Tampa-based Republican consultant Chris Ingram predicted LeMieux’s Crist remark will “haunt him until primary day” in August 2012. “It’s going to be probably the single most defining factor in his defeat,” Ingram said.

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