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Political cold shoulder? Nelson doesn't cry on it

Even state Democrats have some doubts about Bill Nelson, but history has proved his resilience.

Published March 20, 2005

WASHINGTON - U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has a knack for winning Florida elections, so Democrats clamor for his advice, right?

Not exactly.

"I couldn't care less what Bill Nelson wants," state Democratic vice chairwoman Diane Glasser last week said of Nelson's choice to lead the Florida Democratic Party.

Apparently, neither could outgoing state party chairman Scott Maddox. The likely gubernatorial candidate didn't check with Florida's senior Democrat before throwing the state party's endorsement to Howard Dean for national leader. Nelson's efforts to limit the number of Democrats running for governor in 2006 also fell flat.

These are awkward times for the man who may be the most frequently dismissed - and underestimated - politician in modern Florida history.

Only a year ago, pundits speculated about Nelson as vice presidential material. Today they are more likely to describe him as doomed. He faces re-election in 2006 as one of the last Southern Democratic senators and the last Democrat holding statewide office in Florida.

"Poor Bill," Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney of Oviedo said last week while walking into the capitol. "He is part of that generation that used to be very powerful and difficult to beat, the Lawton Chiles old Southern Democrats. But that old style Southern liberalism is out of style."

But here are some numbers to consider before drafting Nelson's political obituary:

Zero: The number of Republicans who have stepped up to take on Nelson. By contrast, three formidable Republicans are preparing to run for governor, and none appears likely to switch to the Senate race.

Three: The number of times incumbent Florida senators have been unseated over the past century.

One: The number of elections Nelson has lost among 17 he has been through. The only person to beat him was the late Gov. Lawton Chiles in a 1990 gubernatorial primary.

37: The number of Florida's 67 counties Nelson won in his last campaign, in 2000. That's more than twice what Al Gore carried that year, more than three times what John Kerry carried in November, and 50 percent more than the iconic Chiles carried when he beat Jeb Bush in 1994.

* * *

A few blocks from Bill Nelson's Senate office, filled with paintings of space shuttle launches and astronaut photos, Brian Nick of the National Republican Senatorial Committee chuckled over potential campaign sound bites.

"Florida, we have a problem," he said. "My voting voting record is out of touch with the state."

Since January, two public polls and at least one internal poll for a business group found that roughly half of Florida voters view Nelson favorably, but as many as one in three don't know enough about him to judge. A February Quinnipiac University found voters equally divided on whether Nelson should be re-elected.

Republican strategists see an incumbent still undefined to many Floridians, a state increasingly leaning Republican and an off-year election where Democratic turnout tends to be weak.

"In terms of vulnerability, Nelson's at the top of the list," Nick of the Senate campaign committee said of the 18 Senate seats Democrats must defend.

* * *

You can't beat somebody with nobody. As much as Republicans smell blood around Nelson, they have yet to find their candidate.

Three Republican powerhouses - Attorney General Charlie Crist, Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher and Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings are eyeing the governor's mansion.

Republicans viewed as statewide contenders, including state Sen. Dan Webster of Winter Garden, U.S. Reps. Feeney, Connie Mack IV of Fort Myers and Ander Crenshaw of Jacksonville have ruled out running.

U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon of Indialantic said he's thinking of running, but he is unknown to most Floridians. Likewise, U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite of Brooksville said she has being encouraged to run.

The lack of candidates so far suggests that House members know beating Nelson will be tough even if he is vulnerable, said U.S. Rep. Mark Foley of Jupiter.

"You have to come to the conclusion that this is my last stand. I'm either making it to the Senate or I've had a great career," said Foley, who dropped out the 2004 Senate race citing his father's health problems.

Foley is considering challenging Nelson but said he's in no rush to decide. With more than $2-million in a campaign account already, he has the luxury of waiting.

The biggest shadow over the Republican field is U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris of Sarasota, a controversial figure whom the White House worked hard to keep out of the 2004 Senate race. Many Republican strategists and activists view the former secretary of state as the best thing that could happen to Bill Nelson.

"Republicans have reams of polling from the last cycle that she can win a Republican primary, yet she remains a very polarizing figure and would probably lose the general election," said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Party insiders often whisper that Harris performs weakly even in her own strongly Republican district, though in fact she and President Bush fared about the same last year. Increasingly, those insiders are resigned to her running and fret that the more people try to push her out, the more likely she is to run.

Harris said she will make up her mind in "a few months" and denied anyone is discouraging her from running.

"One of the reasons for the whisper campaign, to the extent it exists, is they don't think I'm going to do it," Harris said. "The other part is they want to encourage those in the governor's race to get out."

For now, the Republican field largely awaits Harris' decision.

"A lot of people that might jump in, or might consider it, are waiting to see what Katherine's going to do," said Sarasota car dealer Vern Buchanan, a millionaire who's also considering a run.

* * *

The anti-Nelson message is emerging even before a challenger does: Bill Nelson casts himself as a centrist at home, but in Washington he votes along with Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton. In a recent National Journal analysis of select votes, among the 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and one independent in the Senate, the magazine found Nelson more liberal than 76.7 percent of his colleagues.

Nelson, 62, makes no apologies for supporting more funding for medical research or a smaller tax cut than President Bush won.

"Is it liberal or conservative to vote to balance the budget, to lessen the tax cuts and the spending increases to balance the budget? This used to be known as fiscally conservative," the Florida native intoned in his courtly Southern accent.

Still, there are clear signs that Nelson is reaching for the right.

He recently supported a bankruptcy overhaul bill opposed by many Democrats. Last week, he bucked his party to vote against replenishing $1-billion the White House had cut from Amtrak. Then late Thursday, after having waffled on the Terri Schiavo controversy, Nelson stunned some observers by backing a Senate bill ensuring federal review of the case.

"You're seeing him flip-flop and run for the center," said U.S. Rep. Harris. "What he constantly says is, "I'm a moderate,' but if you look at his voting record, he voted in lock step with Tom Daschle."

* * *

Nelson's recipe for success has been broad and bipartisan appeal and, critics argue, weak opponents like former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum.

In 2000, he swept the crucial I-4 corridor, including McCollum's own congressional district near Orlando. He also avoided getting trounced in many conservative North Florida counties, where Nelson has family roots and his down-home style can play well.

Nelson knows he's a Democrat running in an increasingly Republican state. He's about to hire Jay Reiff, who managed Mike Easley's successful gubernatorial campaign in heavily Republican North Carolina, to run his campaign. He expects to raise and spend at least $18-million on the race and has brought on board a former Daschle aide, Ami Copeland, to lead his fundraising.

He realizes he's a giant target, but professes confidence.

"Three decades of public service," he said, "has got to count for something."

Staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-9241 or


BORN: Sept. 29, 1942.

EDUCATION: Bachelor of arts, Yale University; law degree, University of Virginia.

POLITICAL CAREER: State House, 1972-1979; U.S. House, 1979-1991; candidate for governor, 1990; treasurer and insurance commissioner, 1995-2000; U.S. Senate, 2000-present.

FAMILY: wife Grace; two children.

[Last modified March 20, 2005, 01:20:46]

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