ORANGE PARK, Fla. (AP) — North Florida isn't a place Republican candidates usually need to worry much about votes. It's the most conservative part of the state and an area where GOP candidates usually crush Democrats.
But Republican Senate candidate Connie Mack campaigned here Friday, and for a very good reason: incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson does better in north Florida and the Panhandle than other Democrats because he sounds like a Southerner and has a reputation as a moderate.
While Mack tried to blast away at that reputation, Nelson stuck to friendly territory in central Florida, campaigning with former President Bill Clinton and hammering home the message that he is the centrist that Mack says he isn't.
"Our state is a state that likes to come together building consensus in a bipartisan way in order to get things done and what we see is that the politics has been going off the rails," Nelson said in West Palm Beach in brief remarks before Clinton took the stage.
A few hours later, Mack appeared with Gov. Rick Scott at a rally in Clay County, just south of Jacksonville, and told Republican volunteers they need to get the word out that Nelson supports President Barack Obama's agenda with nearly every vote in the Senate.
"I know it's getting close to the end and I know that you might be getting a little tired, but you can't get tired yet. We still have four more days to make sure we turn this country around," Mack said.
At the event, state Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry acknowledged that Nelson is able to win over some conservative north Florida Democrats — often called Dixiecrats — who often vote for Republican candidates but are still registered with the party that was popular in the South for generations.
"But the fact is that Bill Nelson's record is not that of a moderate; it is that of an extreme, left-wing liberal," Curry told the crowd of about 60 people. "We need your to help get that message out for Connie Mack — Bill Nelson is not a moderate, he's a left winger."
Among other stops, Mack was in Jacksonville on Wednesday, the Panama City area on Thursday and the Jacksonville area Friday. On Saturday, he'll be in Jacksonville and Panama City again. Curry said that party polling has shown Panhandle Democrats supporting Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland of Panama City and also planning to vote for Nelson. That's a potential problem for Mack, a congressman from southwest Florida since 2005.
"It's our job to make sure those Democrats understand that Nelson is no moderate. His votes are, in fact, to the left. To the far left," Curry said. "We still have enough time left. It's going to have to be around the clock, no sleep until Wednesday."
While Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney are tied in recent Florida polls, Nelson enjoys an edge over Mack that's reflective of his history of winning even when Republicans on the ballot also win.
It's one of the reasons why George Leuenberger, a Panama City Republican, isn't overly optimistic about a Mack victory.
"I think it's a stretch, but hopefully Romney will drag him in on his coattails," said Leuenberger, 76, during a Mack campaign stop Thursday.
Nelson, with his slow, folksy drawl, continued to use the strategy that has worked for him in the past — criticizing partisan politics.
"It's the most polarized environment that I have seen in our state," Nelson said of the current political climate.
Six years ago, Nelson was able to match former Secretary of State Katherine Harris in Republican strongholds in north Florida en route to a substantial victory. Nelson, for example, matched Harris in such Panhandle counties as Escambia and Bay.
Nelson, who grew up in Brevard County and later flew on a space shuttle mission, returned to his home county at midday where he talked about the future of the nation's space program.
Sharon Lagana, a Merritt Island voter who attended the rally, said Nelson's support for the space program was a key reason she is backing him.
"I'm 150 percent behind Bill Nelson," Lagana said.
New statistics released by the Department of State show 3.46 million Floridians have already voted. As of Thursday, about 76,000 more Democrats than Republicans had either voted early or turned in an absentee ballot. The total number of voters also includes about 600,000 people who are not affiliated with either party.
Associated Press writer Matt Sedensky contributed to this story from West Palm Beach. Fineout reported from Palm Bay.
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