Florida Republicans roll out negative campaign against U.S. Sen. Nelson
By Brendan Farrington
The Associated Press
July 25, 2005
WASHINGTON · Sen. Bill Nelson predicted Republican attempts to oust him would get ugly as he sought re-election next year.
But even Nelson was caught off guard when told a Republican group was questioning whether he would be easy on sexual predators simply because he appeared with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in a historically black community of Eatonville, Fla.
After the appearance, the National Republican Senatorial Committee posted items on its Web site asking "Nelson Campaigns With Obama -- Does He Agree With Obama's Record Of Lenience On Sexual Predators?" The site then listed votes Obama made as a state senator on such issues as sex offenders, pornography and adult businesses near schools.
The fact that Republicans in Washington and Florida are already rushing out attacks against Nelson 16 months before the election is a sign that they see him as beatable. "No doubt it will become a pretty negative campaign pretty quickly," said Bob Jackson, a Florida State University political scientist. That's what Nelson expected when he said Republicans would distort his record. But he said he always has been someone who can appeal to all Floridians.
Florida voters "are looking for somebody that they perceive in the mainstream. That's where Florida is politically. And so naturally your political enemies paint you as someone that is not in the political mainstream," Nelson said.
Having U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris in the race is also sure to ratchet up the negative tone. Harris, the former Florida secretary of state who plans to formally announce her candidacy next month, has been a punching bag for Democrats since her role in the 2000 presidential recount. Democrats have rarely passed up a chance to bash Harris, saying she acted to protect President Bush as he sought to preserve his 537-vote victory during five weeks of recounts.
As soon as Harris said she planned to get into the race, Democrats raised questions about her ethics, asking "Why does controversy follow Katherine Harris wherever she goes?"
But for now, Nelson is the only major candidate officially in the race and Republicans are taking advantage of that by hitting hard early. They are attacking Nelson's image as a political moderate who can attract support in conservative areas such as North Florida.
"The more we evaluate Sen. Nelson's record and the more the people of Florida are able to see what he's done in terms of his votes in Congress, they're going to see that he's been a lackey to the most liberal special interest groups in the country," said Brian Nick, spokesman for the NRSC, which recruits and raises money for GOP Senate candidates.
Nick says Nelson voted against the president's tax cuts, opposed abortion restrictions like parental notification and a late-term procedure foes call "partial-birth abortion" and was against limiting civil lawsuit awards.
The Republican Party of Florida has issued similar releases and has tried to lump Nelson in with senators known as liberals.
Nelson is taking the hits in stride. He thinks he has plenty to show Floridians and that he only needs to point to his most recent work to show he has helped Floridians everywhere. He's fought to keep the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy in the Jacksonville area. He's cracked a whip at the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the aftermath of recent hurricanes. He's worked with Republican Sen. Mel Martinez to try to stop oil drilling off Florida's coast.