LEE COUNTY, Fla. (AP) - U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV's entrance into the U.S. Senate race as the instant front-runner also puts a huge target on his back, and he'll have to answer plenty of questions about his personal and political background to maintain that position in a crowded Republican field.
Now the guy to beat, Mack can expect old history to be dug up. There were two barroom fights, including one with then-Atlanta Braves outfielder Ron Gant and another in which he was charged with resisting an officer without violence, to which he pleaded no contest. Then there's more recent history as a congressman, like support for taxpayer funded embryonic stem cell research and earmarks for his district.
In a political world where every aspect of a candidate's life is scrutinized, Mack will now be the candidate everyone else in the race is trying to knock down. He announced his candidacy Monday and on Tuesday began defending his record and explaining why he deserves the position, outside of having a famous name. His father Connie Mack III previously held the same Senate seat and his great-grandfather was the legendary Hall of Fame baseball manager.
One of the first reasons Mack said is his is electability. He said the other four major candidates won't fare as well against two-term Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson, and have done little to prove they can earn voter support.
"The polls show clearly that they don't have the opportunity to beat Senator Nelson and I do have that opportunity," Mack told reporters in a conference call.
His opponents see it differently.
"Whoever wins the Republican primary will be the next United States senator," said Rick Wilson, an adviser to former state Rep. Adam Hasner, who is also seeking the nomination.
Wilson said he believes Mack will not be able to maintain his lead, in part, because people are unhappy with Congress and Mack is part of the Washington establishment.
"There are a couple of major front-end differences and the first being that on the first day of his campaign, he's defending the Washington culture of earmark funding," Wilson said of Mack.
Mack told reporters he supported a ban on earmarks, but in the next sentence defended projects he helped bring to Florida, including a widening of Interstate 75 through his district.
Mack also acknowledged that voters are angry with Washington.
"The people have a right and are right to have a negative approval rating of the Congress," Mack said. "They have a right to be upset."
But he said he has been an "outsider" in the House even while serving there for more than eight years. That assertion will be challenged repeatedly during the primary.
"The contrast is a sharp contrast between celebrity and substance," said former Sen. George LeMieux, who is seeking to return to the Senate after serving the last 16 months of Sen. Mel Martinez' unexpired term. "Our campaign is about ideas and solutions to the problems facing the country."
Others seeking the nomination are retired Army Col. Mike McCalister and former Ruth's Chris Steak House CEO Craig Miller.
Mack, 44, was elected to the state House in 2000 to represent the Fort Lauderdale area. He served for three years before moving back to Fort Myers and winning his current seat. He's held onto the office, winning election four times by an average of 35 percentage points. He sits on the Oversight and Government Reform and the Foreign Affairs committees.
But already questions have been raised about what he did to deserve elected office in the first place. Mack was a marketing executive with LTP Management, which manages several chain restaurants, including Hooters in South Florida. Florida Democratic Party executive director Scott Arceneaux mocked the job experience in a press release, referring to it as Mack's "vast professional experience planning parties for Hooters."
LeMieux, a lawyer who has served as chief of staff under former Attorney General and Gov. Charlie Crist but who has never been elected to political office, said the next senator shouldn't be someone who's looking to make politics their life, but rather someone who goes to Washington to solve problems and then comes back home.
"I think what the voters are going to want is someone who is not a career politician and someone who has worked in the real world," LeMieux said. "The Senate is a serious place and it's for serious people."
Mack will also likely be reminded of some not so pleasant memories from his 20s. Mack broke an ankle during a 1992 Atlanta fight with Gant and sued the baseball star. A jury in 1997 found that Gant started the fight, but did not award Mack damages. In 1989, Mack was charged with resisting an officer without violence after a fight at a Jacksonville nightclub. Mack pleaded no contest and was let off without penalty.
When the bar fights became an issue in Mack's 2000 campaign for the state House, he said he had been "young and foolish" when those things happened, but he had changed since then.
Mack has also been criticized for not spending enough time in the district. He divorced his first wife after arriving in Washington and married California Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack.
"There are a few people who like to typically talk about that," Mack said. "That's just part of politics, but this is my home. I was born and raised in Fort Myers and I'm proud of that."