TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux tried to distinguish himself from U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV, the frontrunner in the GOP Senate contest, by pointing out differences on federal spending, immigration and the United Nations during a candidates forum Sunday.
LeMieux was the only one of three candidates to directly contrast his positions with a primary opponent, saying Mack's proposal to cut the federal budget by 1 percent each year for the next six years doesn't go far enough. He also characterized Mack's support of defunding the United Nations as unrealistic. And he pointed out that Mack has sought earmarks as a congressman while LeMieux said he didn't seek any during his time in the Senate.
"I don't need earmarks because I don't want to stay there forever," said LeMieux, who said he would serve no more than two terms if elected. "This is the difference between people who want to serve and career politicians."
The forum was hosted by the Florida Federation of Republican Women and the candidates didn't appear on stage together. LeMieux spoke last and Mack didn't have an opportunity to respond to the comments. Also appearing was retired Army Col. Mike McCalister. The winner hopes to unseat U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat.
LeMieux, who served in the Senate for 16 months after being appointed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist to serve out the remainder of former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez's term, was leading the Republican field until Mack entered the race in November. Helped by his name recognition - his father was Sen. Connie Mack III and his great-grandfather was the Hall of Fame baseball manager - Mack has built a 30-plus percentage point lead in polls.
Mack received one of his loudest applause lines when asked about the United Nations.
"We're going to defund the U.N.," Mack said. "This is something I don't understand. Why would we participate in the U.N. when the U.N. is working against the values that make our country great?"
Instead of talking about his primary opponents, Mack spent much of his time criticizing Nelson, saying that the Democrat doesn't live up to his moderate image when he's in Washington. Mack asserted that Nelson has supported President Barack Obama with more than 90 percent of his votes. He said Nelson and Obama are undermining the United States' standing in the world.
"Our enemies are emboldened and our allies are wondering where their friend is," Mack said.
McCalister also spoke out against the U.N., but didn't go so far as to say the United States shouldn't participate in it. At least not yet.
"That's a treaty that we need to review and I don't think that treaty is working to our advantage," he said, adding that it needs to be amended or the United States "should get out."
"They're eventually going to start telling us where to live and they're going to start taking away our guns," McCalister said.
LeMieux, however, said that defunding the U.N. was a good "applause line," but the United States needs to be a part of it to defend allies like Israel.
"We have to fight within the United Nations," LeMieux said.
LeMieux then went on to say Mack's "Penny Plan" to cut federal spending wouldn't solve the budget deficit. In contrast, he said he proposed as a senator to cut and cap spending at 2007 levels, which he said would balance the budget in four years.
He also pointed out that he supports an Arizona law that gets tough on illegal immigrants while Mack opposed the law.
And in perhaps a more subtle contrast, LeMieux was introduced by his wife, Meike, and he talked at length about her support when he was appointed to serve in the Senate. Mack divorced his first wife after being elected to Congress and is now married to U.S. Rep. Mary Bono Mack, the California Republican who succeeded her late husband Sonny Bono in Congress. Mack has been criticized by some for not spending enough time in his district.
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