Nelson, Haridopolos Share Stage for First Time

By: Keith Laing, The News Service of Florida
By: Keith Laing, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, January 19, 2011 --

Appearing at the same event for the first time since both acknowledged they are running for the U.S. Senate in 2012, Sen. Bill Nelson and Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos each said Wednesday that they hoped to be judged in that race by their records in office now.

Nelson, the lone elected statewide Democrat, confirmed that he is definitely a candidate in 2012 to return to his seat for a third term and is confident he will win, despite the tough times experienced by fellow Democrats in 2010. Following an election that saw Democrats nationally and in Florida get wiped out in 2010, Nelson has emerged as a top Republican target.

He used his speech to the annual Associated Press Florida Legislative Planning Session to tout his record in the Senate.

“In the Senate, I have had the privilege of accepting the mantle from Bob Graham to help restore one of the state’s great treasures….the Florida Everglades,” he said. “After decades of delay, we have now gotten the first meaningful chunk of federal money and it is happening as we speak. And then as many of you have reported, we’ve been able to get more than $2.4 billion on the table for a high speed rail system.”

Haridopolos, the first declared candidate to challenge Nelson in what figures to be a hotly-contested election, similarly spoke highly of his own work in the Florida Senate.

“I think when people look at my track record and how we’ve transformed the Florida Senate, and I think they’d like us to go that way in the United States Senate,” he said. “As you know, I’m a candidate, but the way I’m going to be judged is not how much money I raise, it’s how I perform as Senate president, and that’s why I’m keeping my focus on the Senate presidency.”

Haridopolos said he was not sure if he would raise money for the Senate race during the legislative session, which he would be able to do because he is seeking a federal office, not a state position.

Factoring in middling approval ratings in Florida for President Barack Obama, who will be on the ballot for a second term himself, the GOP smells blood when it comes to Nelson in 2012. But the two-term senator told reporters Wednesday that he has won elections despite a national political pendulum that has swung both ways since he first won a state legislative seat in 1972, the year Richard Nixon trounced Democrat George McGovern.

“Richard Nixon won my legislative district by 75 percent,” he said. “I carried in my race 75 percent. So I run my own races.”

However, Nelson was not ready to suggest that Obama was heading the way of McGovern, saying that he was confident the president would both win re-election and win Florida. Nelson said he would be glad to have Obama campaign with him in 2012.

“I work with him every day and when it’s called for him to be here, I am certainly looking forward to continuing that relationship,” he said. “I think Obama is really starting to ascend in his recognition and appreciation by the people.

Haridopolos sought to downplay talk of the burgeoning Senate race Wednesday, turning repeated questions about his candidacy back to state legislative issues.

“I hope that you will all show up after session for my press conference about the U.S. Senate,” he said in exasperation at one point. “I hope that you focus on what I’m focused on, which is the budget. I know the politics part of it is more exciting to write about, but I think you’ll see from our already-hard work in the Senate that we’re focused on doing the job that I have right now.”

Democrats have said recently that they intend to vigorously defend Nelson. Other rumored Republican candidates include former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, who held the seat occupied now by Sen. Marco Rubio for a little over a year, and U.S. Rep. Connie Mack of Fort Myers.

Nelson added Wednesday that he is not the liberal that Haridopolos and other Republicans are sure to try to paint him as.

“My brand of politics also is where Florida is. Florida in its politics, it’s not to the extreme either right or left. Florida politics is one of moderation. That’s what they look for in their elected officials and that’s the way I’ve tried to conduct myself and the people have responded in the past and I think they will again.”

In Florida political history, many legislative leaders like Haridopolos have sought statewide office. But few have been successful, though last fall Marco Rubio, a former House speaker, was elected to the Senate. Another recent House speaker, Tom Feeney, was also elected to Congress.

“I shouldn’t be here in the first place,” Haridopolos said. “When I ran for office the first time back in 2000, I came up to my party chairman and he said ‘you have no chance of winning. Why are you even running?’ and I like to think I beat the odds. I’m going to put myself up for office and people are going to make an up-or-down decision, that’s the beauty of democracy.”

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