Nelson laments that Mack has embraced the petty partisanship that has “polarized Washington.” It’s an approach, Nelson says, that is unlike his father, former Sen. Connie Mack III, whom Nelson replaced in the U.S. Senate.
But Nelson has stayed clear of frequent references to President Obama. He appeared at a campaign stop with Vice President Joe Biden, whom he considers “a close friend” but rarely mentions the president’s name. He does not shy away from defending his vote on the Affordable Care Act, but defends it quietly when asked as “the right thing to do.”
He likes to say that when he flew in space, “I looked back at Earth and I didn’t see political division. I didn’t see religious division and I didn’t see ethnic division.’’ It is a recitation of his latest television ad, and the closing message of his campaign.
“It’s the message that everybody wants,’’ Nelson said last week. “It’s the message that my 104-year-old grandmother said on her death bed: ‘Son, don’t think of yourself as better than other people.’”
Nelson is rated as a centrist by the government watchdog organization, GovTrack.us, which relies on votes and bill sponsorships to analyze the records of congressmen. Mack, by contrast, is listed as a "rank-and-file Republican.”
He counts among his closet friends several senators who take part in a weekly prayer group in Washington, including Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. He also notes that Florida’s junior senator, Marco Rubio, “has not come out in a position and said anything against me in this campaign.”
Nelson’s fence-sitting record has also come with a price.
His popularity is lower than average for a veteran incumbent, said Brad Coker, director of Mason Dixon polling, which conducted the latest poll for the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times. Similar numbers earlier this year helped persuade Republicans that Nelson was vulnerable for defeat in their quest to regain control of the U.S. Senate.
“Bill Nelson has been in public office a long time and to have favorability numbers of only 39 percent is not terribly impressive,’’ Coker said. “It’s a sign people are not thrilled with him.”
Nelson attributes the voter distress to the size and diversity of the state, as well as the onslaught of negative attack ads mounted against him by out-of-state groups — $21 million by his count. Nelson has raised $16 million and, he tells audiences, “I’ve had to do it on my own.”
Nelson is not ready to say that, if re-elected, this will be his last campaign. “Do I want to slow down? No,’’ he said firmly, noting that he doesn’t drink, still jogs, and works out daily.
He examined the assembled group of aides, students and reporters on the tour at Florida State University and concluded: “I bet you, looking around at this crowd, I can do more push-ups than anybody here.”