Published: Oct 23, 2012 1:59 PM EDT

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Almost as soon as Congressman Connie Mack IV started running for Senate, his Republican primary opponents and Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson began attacking his character, pointing at a bar fight, a separate bar arrest and road rage incidents from his 20s.
    
There have been questions about his one-time financial problems, his divorce and subsequent marriage to California Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack, the widow of Sonny Bono.
    
But those that have worked with Mack since he entered politics tell a different story, one about a man with a purpose and a hope of following in the tradition of his father, former Sen. Connie Mack III. They say those who take Mack lightly, who think that he is riding on his father's name, are wrong about him.
    
"People make those arguments at their own peril. They should not underestimate his intellect nor his political savvy," former Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp said. "Connie has always been very focused - very focused - and I think that's one of his strengths."
    
Mack, 45, is pushing his conservative credentials as he tries to deny Nelson a third term, saying he has been working to decrease government spending since he was first elected to the state House in 2000. He left the Legislature to run for Congress in a 2003 special election from a southwest Florida district and has been there since.
    
"Your name is your name. Sometimes it can be a great help, sometimes it can't. In our case we're very fortunate to have a great legacy to build on," said the elder Mack, who was often accused of riding the coattails of his namesake grandfather, the Hall of Fame baseball manager.
    
He recalled that when his son first ran for the state House he asked him why he was doing it. The younger Mack described the speech his father made in announcing his retirement, a message about how politics is an honorable profession and he wished more people, especially younger people, would serve.
    
"He said, 'Dad, I was listening,'" Mack III said. "He believes in basically the same thing I believe in - a smaller, limited government that gives more individual freedom, that lowers taxes to create growth and fewer regulations to give an opportunity for the development of new jobs. And he feels a passion like we should. As a dad, it's kind of exciting to see that your son follows what you believe in so strongly."
    
When Mack, current Senate President Mike Haridopolos and Kottkamp reached Tallahassee in 2001 they teamed up with other freshman GOP legislators to form "The Freedom Caucus." The idea was simple: they'd sift through every bill and look for hidden fees and taxes and oppose them.
    
"We wanted to make it painful when people tried to raise a fee or tax," Haridopolos said. "He's not a kind of Johnny-come-lately fiscal conservative. He's been that way since his first day in office."
    
Mack recently mentioned the Freedom Caucus on the campaign trail.
    
"We were tea party before tea party was cool," he said. "We decided that we weren't going to let leadership, whether it was Republican or Democrat, pass new taxes, new fees, new regulations. We were going to stand up and stop all those things."
    
It was in Tallahassee that Haridopolos said he learned that Mack took politics and his job seriously. Sometimes they would grab an after-work beer and a po' boy from a local Cajun restaurant, but then Mack would head straight back to the apartment they shared and work instead of hitting a bar then-popular with lawmakers.
    
"I see these ads now (that refer to Mack as a partier) - when he was in the House with me, he never went out. I always saw him as a hard-working guy. I lived with him for a year, so I saw it first hand," Haridopolos said. "I know who the partiers were. He wasn't that late night, 'Let's go to Cafe Cabernet' kind of guy."
    
Since going to Washington, Mack has served on the Oversight and Government Reform and the Foreign Affairs committees. He has been outspoken critic of Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Chavez, and has called for kicking the United Nations headquarters out of the United States and cutting off its funding, saying it supports the nation's enemies. He is also a co-sponsor of a balanced budget amendment.
    
But Mack's personal life crumbled shortly after he arrived in Washington. His first marriage ended in a 2006 divorce and there were unpaid bills, bounced checks and other financial problems. His 2007 marriage to Mary Bono also raised questions about how much time he was spending in his district.
    
Much has also been made of Mack's more youthful years. Before dropping out of the Republican primary, former Sen. George LeMieux said Mack's only experience before being elected to office was promoting Hooter's restaurants. Mack, a University of Florida graduate, did have other jobs, including selling fitness equipment.
    
And then there's the bar fight he had with then-Atlanta Braves outfielder Ron Gant and an arrest in Jacksonville after arguing with a police officer outside a nightclub. Nelson immediately picked up where LeMieux left off, spending heavily on ads that call Mack's character into question.
    
But Mack says it's misleading to bring up incidents from his youth.
    
"Even if it were all true, who cares? That's not affecting people today. People are worried about keeping a roof over their head, keeping a job or finding a job. Instead he wants to go back and look at things and smear the truth, and it's unbecoming of Sen. Nelson to do this," said Mack, who is now married to California Rep. Mary Bono Mack, the widow of singer and congressman Sonny Bono.
    
Mack's mother, Priscilla, was brought in to counter the Nelson ads.
    
"My Connie was a good kid. A bit of a handful - we mothers understand," she says in one of Mack's ad. "Who would have thought he wants to change the world? But he does. Who knew my other Connie would make a difference? He did, and my son Connie will be a great senator, just like his dad."
    
The family connection helps for Melisa Daly, a 44-year-old property manager from Port St. Lucie, who attended a Mack event a couple weeks before the election and mentioned her admiration for his father.
    
"I don't know too much about him," Daly, a Republican, said about Mack. "He's a nice guy. I love his mother!"
    
While Mack's name helped get him to the general election, he's still having a hard time carving out a reputation for himself among many voters outside southwest Florida. Daly is far from the only person who hasn't gotten to know Mack well as the election grows near.
    
But she, like others, just don't want Nelson back in office.
    
Maureen Tubello, 66, of Port St. Lucie didn't vote for Mack in the Republican primary, but said she's supporting him now for a simple reason.
    
"Bill Nelson is just about as bad as you can get. I'd support an aardvark over Bill Nelson," she said.
    
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Follow Brendan Farrington on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bsfarrington

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