Connie Mack IV's "road to prosperity" tour swept through Pasco County on Tuesday accompanied by a daylong downpour, but as with everything else in his rapidly evolving campaign for the U.S. Senate, the congressman from Fort Myers saw the storm as more evidence that the wind is at his back.
If he were a sailboat, it would be time to unfurl the spinnaker.
Consider: The crowds that greeted him in Trinity, Wesley Chapel, Dade City and Heritage Springs would have been considered large, gracious and generous even if it had been sunny out. Then there was the recent contribution of $1 million by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson to the Freedom PAC, the super political action committee that supports Mack.
And favorable general election polls have begun to pile up in such sufficient numbers that Real Clear Politics, a clearinghouse for all things political, has moved the race for the seat held by Sen. Bill Nelson, the two-term Democrat from the Space Coast, from "leans Democrat" to "tossup."
You could almost be forgiven forgetting that Mack first has to clear a primary challenge from Dave Weldon, the former congressman from Indialantic. The Tampa area's other daily newspaper hasn't forgotten, and Sunday its editorialists gave Weldon, the longest of long shots, its grudging endorsement over Mack, whom they criticized for opportunism and coasting on a famous name.
That triggered a full-throated complaint from Mack campaign director Jeff Cohen, who charged in a letter that the newspaper's editorial board and its political editor were "in the tank" for Nelson.
Cohen's uncommon fury delighted political bloggers from sea to shining sea — you don't see this sort of public backlash too often, wrote Politico's Charlie Mahtesian — who wondered in the next paragraph whether the campaign hadn't risked alienating mild-mannered independents.
About that. Between bites of a juicy Beef O'Brady's cheeseburger, Mack suggested the folks who should be worried about independents — not to mention Florida's traditional conservative Democrats — are Nelson's longtime supporters.
Thumping the overarching theme of a campaign that never mentions Weldon, Mack methodically lashed Nelson to President Barack Obama and Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader. Nelson is in "liberal lockstep" with a pair, Mack says, that has America "on the road to Greece when we ought to get back on the road to prosperity."
For a lunchtime audience of 40 or more who spilled out of Beef's private dining room — the very dining room where then-candidate Marco Rubio delivered his 2010 campaign valedictory speech — Mack ticked the familiar boxes (overspending, calamitous debt, endless deficits, a punishing regulatory environment, an unpopular health care overhaul, sprawling government) and tattooed the policy failures onto Nelson.
Nelson and Obama. Obama and Nelson. Occasionally throw in some Reid, and sprinkle it with a little Patty Murray, the Democratic Senate campaign chief who declared herself ready to allow all the Bush-era tax rates to expire rather than accept a one-year extension that includes families earning more than $250,000.
"That's exactly what Sen. Nelson and President Obama want," Mack says. "They want to raise taxes. Nothing would make them happier."
Wait. Doesn't the idea of having the wealthy pay "their fair share" resonate with voters? With a baseball legacy coursing through his veins, Mack expertly fouls off the question. The pitch — the question — he prefers involves spending, and he turns on it as if it were a 3-1 fastball.
"Ask those same voters if the way we should deal with the debt and deficit is to cut spending," he says, "and they say, 'Yes.' Overwhelmingly, they say 'Yes.'"
Mack would get there by trimming federal spending 1 percent each year for six years, then fixing the budget at 18 percent of GDP. "That's traditionally what we take in," Mack says, "and you can't eliminate your debt if you keep spending more than you take in."
Mack's simple plan — "So simple politicians in Washington can understand it," he says — has 70 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and 14 (including Rubio) in the Senate. But he won't make headway so long as left-leaning Democrats "who never want to cut anything" maintain their Senate majority.
Is the wind at Mack's back a change in the air? A campaign aide notes Nelson's vulnerability: Even when pundits were saying the race leaned Democrat, the incumbent's poll numbers couldn't climb out of the middle 40s. Now even those may be collapsing. Last week's poll of likely voters by the company Rasmussen was a Nelson disaster: Mack topped him by 9 points, 46-37.
And that was before Obama bashed thriving business owners for foolishly imagining personal ingenuity and integrity was remotely linked to their success. Obama and Nelson. Nelson and Obama.
"People have had enough," Mack says, and you could almost see him measuring Nelson for another roll of duct tape.