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Nelson: Scott has unreasonable opposition to federal assistance

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said Tuesday he’s taking nothing for granted in his race against Republican Rep. Connie Mack IV despite a lead in the polls.

The bad news for Nelson? Outside conservative groups continue to pour millions into TV attacks targeting Nelson for his votes in favor of President Barack Obama’s health care law.

By his count, outside spending against him exceeds $18 million, he said during a Tuesday meeting with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board. Last week, American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $3.6 million. This week, American Crossroads launched a $2 million buy that accuses him of "milking the system" by taking a greenbelt tax exemption on his family pasture.

“The good news is that it has not moved the needle very much,” Nelson said, acknowledging more money will come as the election nears.

Nelson often touts his bipartisan efforts in the Senate, but he said his relationship with Gov. Rick Scott doesn’t work like that. Scott is “unreasonable” for rejecting federal money for a Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed rail and a Medicaid expansion that would cover 1 million more Floridians, Nelson said.

"I have tried with friendly persuasion to persuade Gov. Scott on things like high speed rail, and the $2.4 billion that we had sitting on the table. But it’s hard to reason with him," Nelson said. "So, no, I have not had that, because he’s taken the position that he’s not accepting any money. ... He’s just being unreasonable."

 What about working with the Florida Legislature, which controls the state’s pocketbook?

"You talking about the Florida Legislature?” he said with a smirk. “I am hopeful that (incoming House Speaker) Will Weatherford is going to be a more reasonable person. And if they pull off a coup in the state Senate and make your Pinellas County senator the Senate president (referring to Clearwater Sen. Jack Latvala) ... we could get some kind of a deal going."

Despite a flux of ads singling him out as “the deciding vote” for health care, Nelson said his vote for the bill was never in doubt. He said the White House has not done enough to explain to people what the bill does. Often, he said, opponents of the law cannot point to specifics. 

“All they’ve heard is the politicized version, which is that ‘Obamacare’ is bad,” he said. “And this is where I’ve crossed swords with the White House because they dropped the ball. They took the attitude, ‘oh, we passed it. It’s going to sell itself.’ And of course the other side took advantage of that, and you have this thing — that I don’t shy away from — but it sure makes me have to work.”

Nelson deflected a question about whether he would endorse Charlie Crist in a possible 2014 gubernatorial match-up with Scott. Crist, the Republican-turned-independent former governor, endorsed Nelson over Mack.

Nelson said “of course” he would welcome him into the Democratic Party, though that wasn’t the question.

"I have five weeks from today," he said. "That’s what I am going to concentrate on."

He doesn’t share U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young’s call for the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan as quickly as possible. He says he is relying on the advice of military commanders who have laid out an "orderly withdrawal over the course of time." Obama has called for all troops to be out of Afghanistan by December 2014.

"They’re all gung-ho among the Republican crowd, but none of their sons are under a draft," he said. "I operated at a time when I went through ROTC and got a commission we had a draft, and it was a lot of different then. I think it’s an accurate representation that a lot of the war is forgotten because it’s not touching people in their daily lives."

Nelson said the latest Crossroads ad, and those that precede it, are misleading voters. The influx of negative ads against him this year “forced me to go up early” against Mack, he said, resulting in a commercial highlighting Mack’s youthful brawls and missed congressional votes.

"I just don’t have that much money, so I had to string it out,” he said, "but I couldn’t let them keep attacking me like they were."

The Mack campaign pointed out that Nelson enjoys support from outside spending groups, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Majority PAC, Saving Florida's Future and American Bridge, that have attacked Mack on the airwaves. Mack spokesman David James criticized Nelson for not actively campaigning. 

"It’s an insult to all Floridians that a person whose held public office for 40 years can only discuss his record for a total of 15 days prior to election day in public," James said.

Nelson would not reveal how his campaign will spend the next five weeks.

"Depends on what they do in their attacks against me," Nelson said. "I have to protect myself, and I have to protect myself with the truth." 

-- Katie Sanders