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Florida’s Leading Democrat Seeks Third Term

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U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) speaks before the arrival of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during  a campaign event (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) speaks before the arrival of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during a campaign event (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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MARIANNA, Fla. (AP) — Standing in front of a small group eating fried chicken and Southern food, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson recalls how this small Panhandle town got a fire truck with the help of the federal stimulus.

Nelson later on this same swing through north Florida will stress the need for federal research dollars when he visits the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in the state capital.

As the lone remaining Democrat elected statewide in Florida, Nelson has no problems defending his votes for the stimulus and other federal programs including President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.

“This isn’t welfare,” Nelson says about block grants for cities and counties. “What this is is the lifeblood of helping communities when they are coming out of an economic recession being able to take care of their people.”

Nelson’s campaign visit through the Panhandle this week was meant to stress his connections to the state’s rural past. One part of the trip included a visit to three family generations buried outside a Baptist Church in rural Washington County.

But along the way Nelson used his twang and folksy style — which includes plenty of stories about his family and Florida history — as a counter to the constant refrain put forth by his Republican challenger, Republican Connie Mack IV, that he is in lockstep with Obama.

“I support the president when I think he’s right and I oppose him when I think he’s wrong,” said Nelson, who is seeking a third term.

He points out he has worked with Republicans on Everglades restoration, the future of the space program and legislation to guarantee that the bulk of fines from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill would go to Gulf states. Nelson does generally vote with Democrats, but there are have been times that he parted ways with the majority including over the 2008 bailout of major banks.

Nelson draws a contrast between himself and Mack by contending that Mack’s push for budget cuts are a “mindless approach” that would hurt communities and result in job cuts. He says that his rival is part of a group that insists “my way or no way.”

“This shrillness and this polarization in politics has got to stop,” Nelson said. “That’s why I am staying in the game.”

The 70-year-old Nelson has had a career arc that stretches to the nation’s capital from his childhood in Brevard County, where he wound up selling cattle to help pay for his college expenses, first at the University of Florida and then Yale. He spent time in both the Florida Legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives, where he became the first House member to fly on the space shuttle.

But a bid for governor in 1990 nearly derailed his career.

Nelson was derided as an “empty suit” in a devastating profile that ran in Florida Trend magazine. Former U.S. Sen. Lawton Chiles jumped into the race late and thrashed Nelson by a two-to-one margin in the Democratic primary.

Long-time friend Charlie Lydecker, who served as a finance chairman for that failed bid for governor, credited Nelson’s religious faith for helping him get over the loss. He said that Nelson spent hours combing through Florida law books where he decided he could help consumers by running for insurance commissioner in 1994.

“I think he’s exactly what he appears to be,” Lydecker said. “He is a public servant, true blue and all the way through.”

That view is echoed by Jim Towey, the president of Ava Maria University who worked for former President George W. Bush. Towey has political differences with Nelson over abortion and the health care overhaul. But they have been friends for two decades dating back when the two men held Bible study sessions together in Tallahassee.

“He and I know that we can have political disagreement and still be friends,” Towey said. “It doesn’t run to the heart of who he is…I think he’s sincere about his faith, he’s sincere about his public service.”

A decade after his loss in the governor’s race, Nelson made his first bid for the U.S. Senate. He defeated Bill McCollum in a race to succeed Connie Mack III — the father of his current GOP rival. He then won a second term by decisively defeating former Secretary of State Katherine Harris, one of the central figures in the chaotic presidential recount of 2000.

George LeMieux said that he had a good working relationship with Nelson during the 18 months LeMieux served in the U.S. Senate. But he contended that Nelson still needs to be replaced because he sides too many times with Democratic leaders.

“He’s a fine guy, but he votes for the wrong things in my view,” LeMieux said. “On the votes that matter Bill Nelson voted with the Democrats.”

That doesn’t seem to bother W.K. Johnson, a Republican voter listening to Nelson during his lunchtime stop in Marianna. He said he was sticking with Nelson because of his “humble beginnings” and his willingness to help people regardless of their political affiliation.

“That’s the American way,” Johnson said.

It could be tempting to consider this Nelson’s final election after four decades in politics. But Nelson isn’t ready to say that’s so.

“I don’t want to you to limit in any way,” says a laughing Nelson.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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