TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - As Rep. Connie Mack IV of Florida prepares to jump into a U.S. Senate race instead of seeking re-election, he is likely to become the instant front-runner - at least for now - in a Republican primary where the current field has failed to gain momentum.
His name alone will help move him toward the lead of a five-way race to see who will challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. His father, Connie Mack III, was a popular senator until retiring in 2001 and his great-grandfather was the legendary baseball manager and Hall of Famer Connie Mack. And as a sitting congressman whose family has built a political network, he should be able to raise money.
"He probably enters the race as the front-runner," said Jamie Miller, a Republican consultant who served as Senate candidate Katherine Harris' campaign manager. "I'm not going to say that it's a slam dunk for Connie, but if he's able to put his ducks in a row and is committed to the race and works hard on fundraising and campaigning, Connie Mack will be a tough person to beat."
Strategists from both political parties believe Mack will generate excitement, at least to start, in a race that has lacked enthusiasm. A Quinnipiac University poll last month showed that 58 percent of Republicans were undecided and no candidate was favored by more than 17 percent of Republicans.
Mack's political spokesman David James said Thursday an official announcement is still weeks away, and for now Mack is building a team. He has nearly $350,000 in his House campaign account that he can use in a Senate race. James said Mack won't comment on the Senate run until his announcement.
But just the tease about him entering the race is creating a buzz.
"He'll probably start the race ahead in the polls because of name ID and there will be some sense that he's the inevitable guy," said Democratic strategist Steve Schale. "But it's not like he's a Jeb Bush getting in the race."
Schale and Miller agree that after his initial bump, he'll still have to prove he deserves the support. If not, Miller said he risks being the Senate race's version of Texas Gov. Rick Perry entering the Republican presidential primary. Perry jumped to the top of the polls as an alternative to a field that wasn't generating excitement, but quickly plummeted after poor debate performances. Similarly, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann rose in the polls after winning the Ames, Iowa, straw poll and later plummeted. Herman Cain surged as Perry fell, but has since stumbled.
"You can kind of look to the presidential race that he's going to need to prove to voters that he deserves the (front-runner) status," Miller said.
Also seeking the nomination are retired Army Col. Mike McCalister, former state Rep. Adam Hasner, former Ruth's Chris Steak House CEO Craig Miller and former Sen. George LeMieux, who was appointed to serve the last 16 months of Sen. Mel Martinez' term.
Mack served three years in the state House representing the Fort Lauderdale area before moving back to Fort Myers and winning his congressional seat in 2004.
He's married to U.S. Rep. Mary Bono Mack of California, and there have been complaints that he hasn't spent enough time in his district. And while he benefits from his father's legacy, his father hasn't been in office for 10 years. The younger Mack has built a reputation as a fiscal conservative. As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, he's been an outspoken critic of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
His opponents will criticize him for supporting embryonic stem cell research and for opposing the Arizona immigration law that is popular with many Republicans.
Mack announced in March that he would seek re-election instead of the Senate seat. He endorsed Senate President Mike Haridopolos, but Haridopolos has since dropped out of the race.
Mack reconsidered after seeing poll numbers and lackluster fundraising from the current field, Haridopolos said.
"There was not much interest in the Republican field," Haridopolos said. "He's what a lot of us were looking for in a candidate."
Sen. Marco Rubio, who won his seat last year, praised Mack and said his entry will make it a better primary.
"I respect him. I think he'll be a good candidate. I think he improves the field and adds to an already good field of candidates," Rubio said after an Orlando event. "His dad has done great service for our state, I'm sure that won't hurt. But he has his own identity and his own views on issues and that's what I'm sure he'll run on."
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