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Nelson kicks laid-back campaign into gear for closing weeks

IMG_7628 U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson returned to his red clay roots on Tuesday and visited a modest cemetery behind the New Orange Baptist Church near the tiny Panhandle town of Chipley.

There, and in the cow pastures beyond it, five generations of Nelsons are buried, the offspring of Jens Nissen, Nelson’s great, great grandfather. The elder changed his name to John Nelson after arriving from Denmark to Port St. Joe 183 years ago in 1829.

“These folks are the salt of the earth. They lived a simple life and their children went on to have very successful careers,’’ Nelson said, pointing to the shiny gray tombstone of his uncle Donald, a veterinarian.

Nelson, 70, was greeted by cousins Catherine Nelson of Chipley and Margaret Ferguson of Tallahassee and joined by his son, Bill Nelson, Jr. The side trip to the cemetery was buffeted Monday and today by rallies in Pensacola, Panama City and Gainesville as Nelson barnstorms through the state in the most active two weeks of his campaign for a third term in the U.S. Senate. (Photo: Nelson and son, Bill Nelson Jr., at the family grave site in Chipley.)

The Panhandle is must-win country for Nelson's challenger, Republican Congressman Connie Mack IV of Fort Myers, as the region with its military bases and conservative voters have become increasingly perilous for Democrats.

Nelson has had a steady lead in the polls, but the race has been tightening as Mack has been buoyed by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s surge in the polls. Mack campaigned with Romney in Daytona Beach on Friday and was joined by U.S. Sen. John McCain in a fly around on Tuesday that included the military strongholds of Pensacola, Jacksonville and Tampa.

“We take nothing for granted,’’ Nelson told a small crowd at The Oaks Diner in Marianna Tuesday. “We're fortunate we have a lead."

He noted "the vagaries of the presidential race that could come and go and have some effect on our race" prompt him to "run as hard as we can and if people understood my values, which are Florida values, then I think it’s going to turn out just fine.”

Nelson’s low-key campaign has focused on television, much of it attacking Mack. In a decision borne of his years of experience competing for airtime in Florida’s crowded media markets, Nelson raised money early and reserved the television time in May for the final two weeks.

His two closing ads, both positive and personal, feature the centrist themes of his campaign. One has Nelson talking about  the middle class, education, and family values and the other features him and the space shuttle crew he traveled with to orbit the earth during his congressional voyage to space.

As the camera shows a view of earth, and Florida, from his vantage point in space, Nelson’s voice is heard saying: “When I flew in space, I looked back at earth and I didn’t see political division. I didn’t see religious division and I didn’t see ethnic division. What I saw was that we were all in this together and if we would just listen to that, we’d get a lot more done. I’m Bill Nelson I approve this message.’’

Nelson recites the audio proudly, telling reporters: “It’s the message that everybody wants. It’s the message that my 104-year-old grandmother said on her death bed: ‘Son, don’t think of yourself as better than other people.’”

He bemoans the “excessive partisanship, ideological rigidity” that has imperiled progress on debt talks and polarized health care reform but is optimistic much of the hard line will soften after the election.

At the Oaks Diner, where the lunchtime crowd leisurely ate heaping plates of fried chicken, greens and creamed vegetables and sipped sweet tea, the world seemed to move more slowly.

Jackson County Sheriff Lou Roberts noted that while the region votes Republican for president, Nelson’s roots “make a significant difference." Nelson beat challenger Katherine Harris in 2006 in Jackson County with a 3,100-vote margin, a nearly two to one edge.

“In the fast-paced world of the rest of Florida, when you see someone is one of us, you feel they’re one of your own,’’ he said.

It is a message Nelson hopes to convey as he barnstorms the state in the closing days.

“People want their public servants to care and part of that understanding is to understand your people,’’ he told reporters. “Florida is a very diverse state. There are different opinions all over Florida. People don’t want to feel left out. They want their elected senator to understand that.”