The Osceola County Republican Party is hosting a forum for the U.S. Senate candidates on Jan. 26. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

KISSIMMEE – It’s not quite being ranked yet among the nation’s most hotly competitive U.S. Senate races, but there’s no question that a lot of Republicans think U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., is vulnerable and can be defeated.
So many, in fact, that 12 candidates have filed to run for the Republican nomination to challenge Nelson in November, and at least eight of them plan to be in Kissimmee next week, taking part in the 2012 U.S. Senate Candidate Forum, sponsored by the Osceola County Republican Party and the Greater Osceola Republican Women’s Network.
The debate will be held at Kissimmee City Hall in the commission chambers at 101 N. Church St. in downtown Kissimmee, starting at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 26.
“We’ve got eight candidates out of the 12,” said Jeffrey A. Goldmacher, operations chairman for the Osceola County Republican Party. “It’s going to be an interesting one.”
Florida remains one of the nation’s critical battleground states. The Cook Political Report, run by political analyst and columnist Charlie Cook, ranks Florida as being too close to call in the presidential race, and ranks at least five Florida House districts as either being very competitive or potentially competitive.
The Cook Political Report also ranks nine U.S. Senate races as being too close to call, but Florida isn’t one of them. Right now, The Cook Political Report ranks the Nelson race as “leaning Democrat.”
The Rothenberg Political Report, a site run by political analyst Stuart Rothernberg, also ranks Florida’s Senate race as “tilting Democrat.” Rothenberg ranks Florida as leaning to Mitt Romney, the leading GOP presidential candidate, over President Obama.
On the other hand, the site Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, run by political analyst Larry Sabato, ranks the U.S. Senate race in Florida as a toss up.
No one, on the other hand, is expecting Nelson to win re-election as easily as he did in 2006, which also happened to be a solidly Democratic year nationally and in Florida.
A former congressman, Nelson ran for governor in 1990, but lost the primary to Lawton Chiles, who won the election that year. Nelson bounced back in 2000, winning the Senate seat that was being vacated by Sen. Connie Mack. Nelson defeated former Congressman Bill McCollum that year with 51 percent of the vote. In 2006, against Congresswoman Katherine Harris, his percentage shot up to 61 percent.
Republicans had a strong year in 2010, winning all four statewide offices, picking up several congressional seats, and gaining a two-thirds majority in the state Legislature. But Gov. Rick Scott’s approval ratings are low, and Florida’s economy remains mired in a double-digit unemployment rate. Whether voters will eventually take out their frustration on Democrats, Republicans, or simply incumbents in general remains to be seen.
Republicans are so confident about defeating Nelson that the race brought out plenty of candidates, including Congressman Connie Mack Jr. of Fort Myers, son of the former U.S. Senator; former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, who served out the remainder of former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez’s term, but did not run for the full term that was won by Republican Marco Rubio in 2010; former Florida House Majority Leader Adam Hasner of Boca Raton; 2010 gubernatorial candidate Mike McCalister; former Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse CEO Craig Miller; businessman Ron Rushing; and blogger Marielena Stuart.
Goldmacher said LeMieux will not be attending the debate due to a prior engagement, but most of the others will. The debate will be moderated by Tico Perez, the co-founder of Edge Public Affairs and the president of Tico Perez Solutions.
This primary can still become very competitive, Goldmacher said.
“The primary isn’t until August,” he said.
Political commentator Doug Guetzloe, host of The Guetzloe Report, thinks the U.S. Senate primary will be a non-event, with Mack solidly in the lead.
“In the last poll I saw in Sunshine State News, he was getting 50 to 60 percent of the vote against the others,” Guetzloe said. “He’s going to be hard to beat. He’s already raised $600,000. He will suck the air right out of the race. Craig Miller is a good candidate, but he does not have enough funding. LeMieux has funding, but the tremendous liability of Charlie Crist.”
It was Crist, the state’s former governor, who appointed LeMieux to serve out the remainder of Matinez’s term. Crist then abandoned the Republican Party to become an independent in his unsuccessful bid for the Senate seat. Crist lost that election to Rubio.
LeMieux has the baggage of being associated with Crist, Guetzloe said.
“My view is that Connie Mack will be the one to beat,” he said. “McCalister is a good choice, but Connie Mack will win the nomination and have an excellent shot at beating Nelson, even though Nelson will be hard to defeat.”
The presidential campaign will have a major impact on the Senate race, Guetzloe predicted.
“Nelson’s biggest baggage in this one is Obama,” he said. “Obama is not doing well in the state of Florida. Things can change, and the economy could get better, but right now Nelson is running away from Obama. Obama is coming to Disney World tomorrow, and Nelson has an engagement in St. Petersburg instead. Nelson has got to be independent of Obama.”
President Obama will visit Walt Disney World on Thursday to unveil a plan to boost tourism and travel and create more jobs. The president is expected to deliver his remarks inside the Magic Kingdom.
A Quinnipac University Poll released on Jan. 11 showed Mack with a huge lead of 39 percent of the vote, LeMieux trailing badly with 6 percent, and Hasner with just 2 percent. A hypothetical general election matchup between Mack and Nelson produced a dead heat, the poll showed, with the incumbent getting 41 percent and Mack, 40 percent.

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