CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Bill who? Nelson where?
The embattled senior senator from the nation’s biggest battleground state has almost no profile at the Democratic National Convention.
Bill Nelson neither asked for nor was offered a speaking role. He held no big public events. He didn’t appear at the Florida delegation breakfast.
But he did stop by and visit delegates on the floor, grant a handful of news-media interviews, attend a fundraiser and then hustle out of Charlotte N.C. after less than a day on the ground.
It’s vintage Nelson: low key and averse to overt partisanship — the essence of a political convention. Nelson, who has shied away from President Barack Obama while backing much of his agenda, didn’t have a speaking role in the 2000 convention, when he first successfully ran for Senate, in 2004 or in 2008.
“The campaign’s in Florida, not in Charlotte,” Nelson explained. “I start in Panama City and start working back from the Panhandle out east on Thursday. That’s where the campaign is.”
Nelson just isn’t the type of speaker a convention would feature anyway, according to those who know him.
“His style is more tailored to small groups, speaking with voters one-on-one,” said David Beattie, a pollster who works for Nelson.
“I don’t know all of the inner workings of how a convention is put together,” Beattie said, “but it all depends on who fits their messaging, what’s right for the hall.”
By that standard: Florida isn’t right for the Democratic National Convention.
The party’s chairwoman, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, of Broward County, has a high-profile role. But she’s not speaking in primetime. No political figure from Florida is.
Compare that lack of Florida presence to the role of politicians from highly liberal Massachusetts, where Gov. Deval Patrick spoke Tuesday, followed Wednesday by Sen. John Kerry and Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren.
Nelson’s absence is made more conspicuous in a convention that came just days after the Republican National Convention in which Florida’s junior senator, Marco Rubio, basked in a prime-time final-day speaking role that, polls show, was favorably received.
Rubio’s so well known that Democrats from North Carolina to California recognized his name when asked by reporters. Ask about the two-term Nelson, and they draw a blank.
Nelson’s opponent in his Senate race, Rep. Connie Mack, also had a Republican convention speaking slot, albeit far earlier in the day, when many delegates paid scant attention to the candidate at the podium.
So far, Nelson’s beating Mack, according to recent polling.
Late last month, Quinnipiac University found Nelson ahead by a 9-percentage-point margin. Public Policy Polling, a firm that typically surveys for Democrats, found Nelson ahead by a lesser 7-point margin.
But Public Policy Polling’s Tom Jensen found indicated that Nelson won’t walk away with the race because he has “middling approval numbers, with only 35 percent of voters approving of him to 42 percent who disapprove.”
“The reason Nelson’s ahead despite being unpopular is that Mack is even more unpopular,” Jensen wrote in an analysis. “The Florida Senate race is one of the strangest in the country this year.”
The criticism is nothing new for Nelson, who has a knack for drawing weaker opponents — Bill McCollum in 2000 and Katherine Harris in 2006 — while his popularity numbers remain relatively low. As the only Democrat elected statewide in Florida, Nelson is the ultimate political survivor.
But Mack is waging a far more aggressive campaign than Nelson’s prior opponents. The congressman, noting the two-term Nelson’s voting record, has tried to frame the incumbent as a “lockstep liberal.”
Voters, however, have drawn a distinction between Nelson and President Obama, who’s essentially tied with Republican Mitt Romney while Nelson nurses a comfortable lead.
Nelson’s secret: He has shied away from Obama at times, said he disagreed with the president and has championed causes like stopping pythons in the Everglades or ensuring that BP adequately compensated Gulf Coast residents after the oil spill.
Though Nelson voted against the bank bailout, he did provide crucial support for the stimulus and the president’s healthcare bill, which narrowly passed. Mack has made those votes central to his attack on Nelson’s record.
In voting for Obamacare, Republicans note, Democrats like Nelson signed off on future reductions to Medicare of more than $700 billion.
Nelson notes that Mack voted for vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s budget plans that vested the Obamacare cuts and would have reduced future Medicare benefits by turning the program into a voucher-like system that relies more on private health-insurance companies.
Mack’s campaign on Wednesday issued a written statement from a surrogate, former Republican candidate Mike McCalister, that criticized Nelson for voting to cut the defense budget and raise the debt ceiling.
“As I travel around Florida,” McCalister said, “I can assure Bill Nelson that he can no longer hide behind his fraudulent moderate mask.”
But Nelson said Mack is the one hiding his identity because many voters think he’s his father, Connie Mack III, a senator-turned-lobbyist. Still, this could be Nelson’s toughest race for Senate yet, especially as outside third-party groups dump money into Florida on negative ads attacking the Democrat.
When asked how tough the race will be, Nelson gave atypically low-key answer.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ll have to let you know closer to the election.”