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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.

The eventual GOP nominee will face the significant challenge of battling Nelson in a presidential election year when President Barack Obama’s campaign is expected to pour as much as $100 million into the swing state of Florida.

Nelson has never been a vastly popular figure in the state, nor has he been particularly unpopular. A Quinnipiac University poll of registered Florida voters released last month found 47 percent approved of how he was handling his job, while 27 percent disapproved.

Polls show the three Republicans with low name recognition statewide. The National Republican Senatorial Committee views Florida as one of its top pickup opportunities, and Democrats recognize protecting Nelson must be among their top defensive priorities. That’s one reason Obama held his first fundraiser of the 2012 season in Miami with Nelson by his side. Roll Call Politics rates this race a Tossup.

Top strategists in Florida say that lack of enthusiasm among the Democratic base in Florida might have been Nelson’s downfall if he’d had to run in 2010. Former Rep. Kendrick Meek, the Democratic nominee for Senate in 2010, received only 20 percent of the vote. But 2012 could be a different story with a fired-up base.

Consultant Steve Schale, who ran Obama’s 2008 campaign in Florida, told Roll Call that Nelson has been traditionally weak in getting Democratic voters excited. But Schale believes having Obama at the top of the ticket can help Nelson counterbalance that problem in 2012.

All three GOP candidates face institutional problems. As current and former state legislators, Haridopolos and Hasner could have difficulty getting a foothold statewide.

“It used to be that the legislature was the cauldron of statewide political leadership,” former Florida Sen. Bob Graham (D) told Roll Call. “Most governors and many U.S. Senators had had legislative experience before they” were elected statewide. Today, term limits and other factors don’t really allow them “the chance to develop a statewide constituency,” Graham said.

Rubio, a former Florida Speaker, is the big exception. That’s thanks in part to Crist, who was damaged by Rubio’s decision to use footage of the governor hugging Obama as he endorsed the president’s stimulus package.

LeMieux’s rivals hope the video of him standing with Crist has the same effect.

Influential conservative blogger Erick Erickson of Red State called LeMieux “former Senator George LeCrist” in a post endorsing Hasner. Erickson was an early Rubio backer, and he got involved in 2010 primaries that in several instances delivered surprising wins for conservative candidates over the establishment’s favored pick. (For his part, Rubio is staying out of the primary.)

A lawyer and businessman, Hasner is working to position himself to the right of his opponents.

Local tea party activists said they are not excited about the field but they are keeping an open mind among the contenders. The conservative Club for Growth is meeting with some of the candidates and is considering getting involved in the primary.

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