Connie Mack battles polls, voter lack of interest in quest to unseat Sen. Bill Nelson

If Republican Connie Mack IV is shouldering the burden of his party’s control of the U.S. Senate, you wouldn’t know it last week as he finished a six-day bus tour of 17 cities in north and central Florida.

In 26 stops, Mack drew modest crowds and meager media attention as he crisscrossed the state. The steady drip of negative poll numbers had him battling expectations as much as barbs from his challenger, incumbent Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson. And with about four weeks before early voting begins, the general public still seems ambivalent.

In the Republican stronghold of Destin on Thursday, Mack greeted about 25 supporters outside the Donut Hole café on Highway 98, and then went inside to introduce himself to customers.

“Could you get us menus?’’ one elderly couple asked Mack, 45, the four-term congressman from Fort Myers, after he shook their hands. The congressman obliged.

None of it has cracked Mack’s cool.

He has tethered his fortunes, his message and his strategy to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and confidently tells audiences “if Mitt Romney wins, I win. If I win, Mitt Romney wins.”

That’s a hard hill to climb, according to the polls. In this must-win swing state for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor remains locked in a statistical tie with President Barack Obama. The latest Senate polls show Mack trailing Nelson by between nine and 14 percentage points. Even Mack’s own poll, a survey of 600 voters taken last Sunday, showed him five percentage points down, with a margin of error of plus or minus four percent.

“Stay tuned,’’ Mack told reporters in Pensacola Thursday. “We’re not done yet.”

True, and Mack argues he will have enough money and outside help to fight to Nov. 6. He won’t reveal his totals, but predicted there will be "$25 to $30 million" spent on his campaign before it’s over and points to a new infusion of third-party attack ads against Nelson.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is spending $2 million on ads this week, Mack said. American Crossroads, a super PAC founded by Republican political strategist Karl Rove, announced it’s spending $1.8 million in Florida on a television ad hitting Nelson’s record on Medicare.

Time is running out, however, with Washington pundits losing interest in what they once viewed as a competitive race. Jennifer Duffy, who tracks U.S. Senate races for the Cook Political Report, wrote in the National Journal last week that the chances of Republicans taking Senate seats from Democrats in Missouri, Ohio and Florida are “remote, at best.”

Mack and Republicans still see Nelson, who is seeking his third term, as vulnerable to a challenge in Florida’s divided political climate. With Nelson keeping a low-profile so far, Mack has attacked with taunts of “Where is Bill Nelson?”

Nelson has agreed to a single debate against Mack in Fort Lauderdale on Oct. 17 and he has scheduled a “Barnstorming Tour” of the state to follow. He raised more than $13 million by the end of the last reporting period in July and steered it toward a barrage of negative television ads, attacking Mack for his personal financial woes, his divorce, his hard-partying youth and attendance record in Congress.

Before the ads launched in early August, Nelson had $8.8 million left in the bank compared to Mack’s $1.3 million.

Mack said he’s confident in Romney’s “very aggressive voter ID and turnout model for the state” that helped him win a bruising primary. And, like Romney, Mack is battling the polls.

“They’re just not accurate,’’ Mack told a Pensacola radio talk show last Thursday, echoing a Republican claim that pollsters this year are modeling their numbers on 2008 voter turnout and sampling Democrats more heavily than is prudent.

His latest bus tour featured National Rifle Association President David Keene in Jacksonville and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and outgoing state Senate President Mike Haridopolos in Tampa and touted the support of the National Federation of Independent Business in Lakeland.

Despite the endorsements, Mack finds himself on the defensive by having to introduce himself to voters and counter Nelson’s stinging television ads.

Even in the Panhandle, where the economy runs on tourism and the military and voters are Republican and conservative, Mack’s advantage is not automatic. Nelson has earned support as an outspoken critic of cuts to the military and a vocal advocate for tourism and seafood workers hurt by the BP oil spill.

“I think Connie will win northwest Florida,’’ said Ashton Hayward, the Republican mayor of Pensacola. The economy has made most voters “looking for anything and everything to turn things around.”

But, he added, “Nelson has an incredible name. It’s going to be a challenge.”

Everywhere he goes, Mack urges audiences to “get this country back” and links Nelson to Obama.

“Bill Nelson and Barack Obama believe in a government centralized approach to our lives,’’ he told the Destin crowd. “I believe in free markets, free enterprise. Bill Nelson and Barack Obama have nationalized our healthcare system and they want to nationalize our banks and our automobile industry.”

He accuses Nelson of criticizing the cuts in the Medicare Advantage plan as “unconscionable” but then voting for the Affordable Care Act, which he claims will include the reductions.

Nelson’s spokesman, Paul Kincaid ,counters that Nelson successfully introduced an amendment to shield current Medicare Advantage recipients. And the allegation that the health reform act will cut funding for Medicare has been debunked by many, including PolitiFact, the Tampa Bay Times website the Miami Herald partners with to check claims by political candidates and others.

Mack criticizes Nelson for voting for the debt-ceiling deal last December, which included the possibility that when the automatic debt reduction trigger known as “sequestration” takes effect there could be as much as $500 billion in cuts to the military over 10 years.

Such deep cuts would be devastating for the Panhandle, which is dependent on Tyndall Air Force Base and the Naval Air Station.

But Kincaid notes that Nelson is working with Republican leaders to forge a compromise and avoid the “sequestration” cuts.

Steve Czonstka, a retired Air Force pilot and defense contractor living in Blue Water Bay, near Destin, doesn’t buy it.

“Bill Nelson comes up here all the time and says nice things about the base and then goes right back to Washington and votes like an Obama clone,’’ he said. “We need someone who walks the talk.”

Mack, however, doesn’t shy away from military budget cuts and voted against the Ryan budget plan because it “doesn’t balance quick enough for me.” He told listeners on Pensacola’s WNRP-1620 AM that he believes the defense budget is not immune to waste. “Sure, there’s a place to cut,’’ he said.

As the conservative talk radio channel devoted an hour to promoting Mack during evening drive time on Thursday, host Branden Rather tried to get a reluctant Mack to offer up one example of something he and Nelson agree on.

“I think he’s a nice guy,’’ Mack replied. “He and his wife Grace are good people.” Mack added, “We need a change. We need to go a different direction.”