Congressman Connie Mack’s entrance into Florida's moribund Senate race has propelled him into instant-frontrunner status in the Republican field and threatens incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson, according to a new poll.
Mack garners 32 percent of the theoretical vote while his fellow Republicans are polling in the single digits, the Quinnipiac University poll shows. In a general-election matchup, Mack would get 40 percent of the vote and Nelson 42 percent.
“The entrance of Congressman Connie Mack into the Senate race changes what had been shaping up as an easy reelection for Sen. Bill Nelson into a tough fight that the incumbent could lose," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
“The fact that Mack is essentially tied with Nelson, who has been a statewide political figure for two decades, should set off warning bells at Democratic headquarters.”
Nelson is the only Democrat elected to state-wide office in Florida. His relatively weak position speaks volumes about the challenges of running as a Democrat in 2012.
Quinnipiac didn't match Nelson against other Republican Senate candidates, but a Mason-Dixon poll from this summer showed the incumbent garnering about 49 percent to former Sen. George LeMieux's 34 percent and 45 percent to former state House Republican leader Adam Hasner.
What makes Mack's numbers stand out is that he has yet to campaign and hasn’t yet officially announced that he’s running. But the Cape Coral Republican and former Fort Lauderdale legislator is well-known. He's the son and namesake of a former well-liked Florida Republican senator, who was the grandson and namesake of a famous baseball player.
The other Republican candidates are suffering from the opposite name ID effect: They have almost none. LeMieux garners 9 percent, Mike McCalister 6 percent and Hasner and Craig Miller tie at 2 percent.
But despite the big lead, Mack's victory is not assured. Nearly half of the electorate, 45 percent, are undecided and the primary is in August. That means the others have lots of time to raise money, campaign and to start taking shots at Mack, who now has a political target on his back.
His criticisms of Arizona’s immigration crackdown, a wildly popular measure among conservatives, is sure to become a top campaign issue in the primary. So could Mack's support for embryonic stem-cell research.
Another sign that early polls don't predict outcomes: Last year's Senate race. When Quinnipiac polled Mack then, in 2009, Mack had 34 percent support. Little-known former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio had just 6 percent.
Mack declined to run and Rubio went on to destroy former Gov. Charlie Crist to become a United States Senator and a nationally watched conservative sensation.
Rubio was recently the subject of controversy over reports that he embellished the story of his family's exile from Cuba. But it has had little effect, the poll shows. About 49 percent approve of the job Rubio is doing, with just 29 percent disapproving -- virtually no change since the last Quinnipiac poll in September.
With numbers like that, the poll is likely to silence talk among some pundits that Rubio wouldn't be a good vice-presidential pick to help win Florida. But the fate of Democrats looks so dim right now, that Rubio might not be needed.
Prior to Mack’s decision to run for Senate, which he declined to do earlier this year, the race had no big name and was overshadowed by the presidential contest.
Nelson has similar numbers to Rubio, with 47 of voters approving of his job performance and only 27 percent disapproving. But in a theoretical matchup against Mack, the two are basically tied. Nelson does better among women voters, Mack does better with men.
The wild-card: President Obama, who could drag down the ticket in Florida. A majority of Florida voters, 52 percent, disapprove of President Obama's job performance and 51 percent believe he should not be re-elected.
Nelson, who has largely backed Obama's agenda in Congress, has kept a cautious distance from the president as of late, refusing to say recently whether he'd campaign with the president in Florida.
"In a race as close as the Nelson-Mack affair, how President Barack Obama does in the Sunshine State in his re-election could play a major role in deciding who wins the Senate seat," said Brown.