By Yaël Ossowski | Florida Watchdog
ST. PETERSBURG — As millions of Americans continue to tune into debates to watch the top two presidential candidates duke it out, voters in the Sunshine State won’t be granted that same luxury when it comes to their only statewide election this fall — a U.S. Senate race.
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and GOP U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, the two leading contenders who have both proven debate-shy in their political careers, will participate in only one live debate this election season, hosted by Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association at Nova Southeastern University in Davie on Oct. 17.
The 2010 U.S. Senate election, on the other hand, saw six debates in four weeks, pitting Gov. Charlie Crist, running as an independent, against Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek on local and national television for millions of Floridians to watch.
Nelson’s campaign has not returned calls to Watchdog, but Mack’s campaign has been more than willing to attack its opponent on this issue.
“The voters of this country are getting three prime-time opportunities to view their choices for President and sadly Bill Nelson does not think the voters of Florida are entitled to the same opportunity,” Mack deputy campaign manager David James said in a news release Wednesday.
This debate-hungry attitude from Mack is new in this campaign season, considering he shrugged off debating his opponents in the GOP primary two months before the actual vote.
“A primary debate among Republicans would only serve to benefit Bill Nelson,” wrote Mack campaign manager Jeff Cohen in a June letter to the Tampa Bay Times. “A debate between Connie Mack and Bill Nelson, however, makes all the sense in the world.”
Pressed on this issue, James told Watchdog that evoking parallels to primary debates was akin to “comparing apples to oranges.”
“Connie is the GOP nominee, which by several polls is in striking distance of Nelson. George LeMieux (one of Mack’s primary opponents) never polled high enough to even qualify by most debate standards,” wrote James in an email.
The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll showed Nelson leading 52-41 over Mack with 7 percent still undecided.
The survey was conducted from Sept. 30-Oct. 1, with 1,191 likely voters and has a margin of error of 2.8 percent.
Independent candidates Chris Borgia, of Davie, and Bill Gaylor, of Melbourne, were not invited to participate in the debate because they did not achieve the specific criteria, according to Leadership Florida, which include polling at or above 15 percent.
Neither candidate, however, has been included in any public opinion survey as of yet.
Mack received 58.7 percent of the vote in the GOP primary over former U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon’s 20.1 percent, followed by Col. Mike McCalister and conservative activist Marielena Stuart, with 14 percent and 7 percent of the vote, respectively.
Former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, an early favorite in the primary battle, dropped out as a result of poor polling.
Nelson won his primary by nearly 500,000 votes, beating health entrepreneur Glenn Burkett by a 79-21 percent margin.
According to the Florida Department of State’s latest totals, the state has 11.5 million registered voters, including 4.6 million Democrats, 4.1 million Republicans and more than 2.4 million independents.
Yaël Ossowski is Florida Bureau Chief for Watchdog.org.