Scott Powers, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.
Former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux announced this morning he is dropping out of the Republican race for U.S. Senate in Florida and endorsing U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV.
Mack of Fort Myers, who has had a comfortable lead in all polls of Republican candidates, now will be the presumptive Republican candidate to take on two-term Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in November.
"It is not my nature to step aside, but there is a reality to running a statewide race in Florida," LeMieux said in a statement sent to supporters. "Without the resources or the opportunity to debate, our message simply cannot be heard."
"To continue would only hurt our chances in the fall, and that is not something that I will risk," he continued. "Connie Mack will be our nominee. He has my support."
A slew of other Republican candidates remain heading towards the primary on August 14, notably Tea Party favorite Mike McCalister and former U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, but none of them has generated much support or raised money statewide.
LeMieux has had trouble generating support, too, although he did raise $2 million. Several Republican U.S. Senate debates were scheduled for this summer but Mack refused to participate and most of them have fallen through.
"We welcome the latest statement from George LeMieux and agree that the internal fight among Republicans would not have been helpful in our shared commitment to defeat Bill Nelson," Mack said in a statement from his campaign. "I welcome and thank George for his decision to support my campaign."
The Nelson campaign deferred immediate comment this morning. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released a statement blasting Mack.
LeMieux's endorsement of Mack comes even though Lemieux has been a harsh critic of both Mack's record and character. The two rivals – with Mack always comfortably on top – have traded fierce shots.
But Mack will need LeMieux's help. He has trailed Nelson in most head-to-head polls. Nelson also has a substantial lead in campaign contributions, though the next campaign finance reports, covering the current three-month period ending June 30, is expected to show a narrowing of that gap.
Mack is the son of former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack III and, after refusing last summer, he entered the race in November with an immediate big lead, while opponents such as LeMieux said he was riding on his father's name.
LeMieux, a lawyer from Lighthouse Point who is chairman of the Fort Lauderdale-based Gunster Law Firm, first entered the race more than a year ago. Several other major candidates also have dropped out, including Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos, former Florida House Majority Leader Adam Hasner and Winter Park businessman Craig Miller.
The latter two left the race with recognition that they could not beat Mack.
LeMieux has never been able to shake his past association with former Gov. Charlie Crist, who became a pariah after he left the Republican party to run as an independent against Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate race in 2010. LeMieux was Crist's top adviser for many years, and it was Crist who appointed LeMieux to a vacant U.S. Senate seat.
LeMieux strongly disavowed Crist in 2010 and established his own record of conservatism while serving out the final 15 months of the U.S. Senate term vacated in 2009 by Mel Martinez. But the Crist connection affected both his fundraising and his opportunity to gain establishment Republican endorsements.
In recent months almost all those Republican endorsements have gone to Mack.
Even before Mack entered the race in November, LeMieux has never polled well.
Quinnipiac University is set to release a poll tomorrow on the U.S. Senate race. Quinnipiac assistant director Peter Brown said he would not release the numbers early, but said LeMieux's decision was not surprising given the May numbers.
"He obviously had not struck a chord with Republicans," Brown said. "Connie Mach has been hugely ahead since he changed his mind and decided to run. Whether it's because of his name, who knows, but LeMieux is facing an incredibly steep uphill climb."
Nonetheless, Mack, too, had trouble establishing confidence among Republicans. Powerful insiders throughout Florida lobbied for a variety of other candidates to enter the field, ranging from former Gov. Jeb Bush to current Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater to Weldon. Only Weldon agreed to do so, entering in May. But polls showed Weldon running a distant fourth among Republican candidates.
Weldon, though, is conceding nothing, saying his campaign has only just begun. He said LeMieux's departure should define the GOP race as between a conservative – himself – and a moderate – Mack.
"The reason I got in the race is because I had a lot of conservatives asking me to get into the race because they are not happy with Connie Mack as a candidate," Weldon said. "I think the voters need to have a say in this, and I'm not pulling out."
Democrats apparently are ready to pick up the attacks that LeMieux started in January.
"It is not just Connie Mack's well documented record of drunken brawls, violent road rage episodes, and attacks on law enforcement that makes him such a bad candidate. It is his diehard commitment to cutting Medicare benefits and privatizing Social Security for Florida seniors that makes him unacceptable to Florida voters," Matt Canter, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, stated in a release this morning.
Among other Republicans, McCalister sounded this morning as if he were conceding the nomination to Mack.
"We're going to continue the race," McCalister said. "We look forward to competing with the other candidates and then when the race is over we'll all pull together, like I've said all along. And we're going to be at Bill Nelson.
"Mack obviously, he's ahead in the polls, but we're running this race to try to get certain information out, and certain ideas out, and we'll just continue to go in that direction," he said.
©2012 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)