Though down in the polls, but Republican Senate candidate Adam Hasner was Friday’s straw poll winner at the Conservative Public Action Conference.
Hasner, a former state House Republican leader, doesn’t have a commanding lead in the crowded race.
Retired U.S. Army Reserve Col. Mike McCalister was right behind him, pulling in 30 percent of the vote to Hasner’s 34 percent.
Former Sen. George LeMieux also was in striking distance, with 24 percent of the 1,500 ballots cast. Craig Miller gained about 12 percent.
Pollster Tony Fabrizio, a Gov. Rick Scott adviser who announced the results at the CPAC meeting, said the results aren’t scientific, but they’re a good benchmark of the sentiment of the tea party, which makes up the most influential block of the GOP.
“It is certainly indicative of where these grassroots conservatives are going in the senate race,” Fabrizio said. ‘The truth of the matter is it’s a close race. It’s not an overwhelming lead. It’s 4 percentage points.”
Public polls paint a different picture of the race. A Quinnipiac University survey and another poll from Gainesville-based war room logistics showed Hasner trails in the race, with LeMieux in the lead and McCalister in second.
Both surveys show that about 60 percent of Republican voters are undecided in the race. It's a sign of how little-known these candidates are in an election season where the Republican presidential candidates command all the attention.
Regardless of who wins the Republican primary for Senate, incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson would win in a theoretical matchup right now, the polls show. Nelson is the only Florida Democrat elected to statewide office in Florida – a result of having weak opponents and an ability to model himself as a centrist.
Sounding anything but centrist, the Republican candidates addressed the CPAC conference and a nearby gathering of Republican Party of Florida voters on Friday.
Hasner noted that U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a conservative darling, appointed him to be the state Republican leader while Rubio was Florida House speaker in 2007 and 2008.
“He called me the most partisan Republican in Tallahassee. He meant it as a compliment. The mainstream media tried to make it an insult. I made it a badge of honor," Hasner said.
The candidates refrained from attacking each other directly, though Hasner hurled veiled barbs at LeMieux by noting the legacy of former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-independent whom LeMieux advised for years.
“When our former governor, my friend, left the Republican Party, the very next day I endorsed Marco Rubio," LeMieux said. Before that time, though, LeMieux was actively involved in undermining Rubio's candidacy and leading the effort to dif up opposition-research on him.
McCalister won the most applause for warning of the dangers of communism, illegal immigration, “radical Islamic aggression,” liberal judges, “the 95 percent of the world” that’s “attacking us everyday,” and the United Nation’s Agenda 21 initiative that he said was an effort to take away gun rights.
McCalister, who has been criticized by veterans and even a general for embellishing his military record, said he would combat the problems by cutting taxes and regulations and beefing up the military.
"My friends, Ronald Reagan had it right,” he said. “You threaten us, we win. You lose."