Amid ongoing anxiety about the Republican field for U.S. Senate, Jeff Atwater is drawing interest and enthusiasm from conservative activists across Florida.
The state's chief financial officer told the political website Shark Tank that he is considering a run for the seat currently occupied by Democrat Bill Nelson.
That news set off a boomlet for Atwater in GOP circles.
Though the Republican Party remains officially neutral, GOP leaders and strategists were clearly buoyed by the prospect of the former state Senate president entering the contest.
"I can understand why a number of people went to Jeff. He easily would be the favorite in both the primary and the general election," said Palm Beach County GOP Chairman Sid Dinerstein.
"Nelson's support is a mile wide, and an inch deep. Atwater will rip 10-to-20 percent of the Democratic vote out of Palm Beach and Broward," Dinerstein estimated, recalling that Atwater piled up 52 percent majorities in those two blue counties in 2010.
Dinerstein may be a bit geographically biased, since Atwater hails from North Palm Beach, but several grassroots conservatives echoed the chairman's assessment that Atwater is a serious contender -- and serious about running.
"Many in the tea party will be receptive to his candidacy, seeing him as a stronger GOP candidate in the general election as a result of less baggage," said Tom Tillison, a tea party activist in Orlando.
Richard Johnston, a Republican strategist, said Atwater was approached to run "by serious folks who he respects."
Johnston characterized the participants as "a cross-section of grassroots conservatives, traditional activists and financiers." That last group is especially important, since Nelson boasts an $8 million campaign war chest.
Neither Connie Mack nor George LeMieux, the putative front-runners in the GOP race, has raised anywhere near that amount. Equally frustrating for Republicans: neither has gained significant traction with voters.
For all of his name recognition, Mack, the son of former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack III, has stumbled on the stump. He has lagged in straw polls, even those conducted immediately after his speaking engagements around the state.
LeMieux, meanwhile, remains tarred by his close association with former Gov. Charlie Crist. Crist, who quit the Republican Party during an unsuccessful run for Senate in 2010, had appointed his former chief of staff to fill that post on an interim basis.
LeMieux's campaign had no comment on the Atwater situation. Mack's camp, without mentioning Atwater's name, reiterated its complaints that the mainstream media are ginning up stories.
"Connie Mack has sent Bill Nelson and his liberal allies, including those in the press, into panic mode and it won't work," the campaign told the Tampa Bay Times.
With Gov. Rick Scott already ramping up a re-election run for 2014, the 54-year-old Atwater is said to be anxious to pursue electoral options beyond the CFO's office.
"The governor's office is blocked for at least six years," notes Roger Stone, a veteran political consultant based in Miami Beach.
"Atwater would be a strong contender for Senate, if he's serious."
In recent months, Atwater has been aggressively promoting his office's work in fighting financial fraud. He also has been a regular on the speaking circuit, appearing before several tea party groups.
A day before President Obama spoke at Florida Atlantic University, the CFO was on the Boca Raton campus to deliver a lecture on founding American principles to a group convened by the conservative James Madison Institute.
But that's not to say he's won over everyone on the right.
Danita Kilcullen, head of Tea Party Fort Lauderdale, blames Atwater and the state's Republican establishment -- including erstwhile Senate hopeful Mike Haridopolos -- for failing to push through a tough immigration law, which she called "the most vital issue to Florida's jobs market and economic recovery."
"I expect nothing to be done by any of these men running for Senate. They all will name their scapegoat and behave like ostriches burying their heads in the sand," Kilcullen said.
Some prognosticators figure the mere act of publicly weighing a Senate bid is a win-win exercise for Atwater, a University of Florida grad and professional banker by trade.
"He is covering bases and building relationships, and I don't fault him for that," said another tea party leader, who asked not to be identified.
"This 'considering' thing is smart because he is getting on the radar. It's free publicity and it makes people believe you're worthy of running for that office, without actually running."
Political strategist Brian Crowley agrees. "Atwater has nothing to lose by dropping his name in at this point, even if he ultimately decides not to run."
Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist based in Jacksonville, calls Atwater "a proven statewide winner" and pointed out that the CFO wouldn't have to resign to run.
"There is almost no risk for him to do it," said Schale, who quickly added that he believes Nelson will beat any candidate the Republicans put up.
"I think [LeMieux] would be a more formidable general election candidate than Mack, but he and I probably share similar odds of winning the GOP nomination.
"The GOP was too quick to shove my buddy Adam Hasner out of the race," Schale said.
In one scenario, Atwater's entry into the Senate contest could send Mack back to Naples, where he could comfortably stand for re-election to his U.S. House seat. Though nearly a dozen GOP candidates are running in that heavily Republican district, they likely would bow out if Mack returned. The qualifying deadline is June 4.
Former Republican Party of Florida Chairwoman Carole Jean Jordan said that the rapidly approaching deadline makes Atwater's entry into the Senate contest "very, very late."
"Most have committed to others or leaning to their favorite," Jordan observed, but she added, "That said, [Atwater] is a great candidate."
Johnston said Atwater "wouldn't be talking if he wasn't serious."
"He'll go through the process to size up the race and make a decision." And, Johnson added, "It will happen in short order -- you can't have the discussion floating out there for very long."
"He's doing more than just casually giving it a glance," agrees Dinerstein.
Sources tell Sunshine State News that some of Atwater's biggest boosters include "folks who were part of Marco Rubio's campaign early on."
"Neither Mack nor LeMieux has sparked any excitement among Florida Republicans, and Atwater is the only potential candidate with any semblance of name recognition," said Crowley.
Tillison says the tea movement may finally have a Senate race to party over.
"Personally, I think Atwater getting in the race is a good thing. The effect will be to force both Mack and LeMieux to up their game and establish once and for all that they are the candidate to defeat Bill Nelson, or succumb to a better choice.
"With the balance of the Senate at stake, this is no time for uncertainty."
Contact Kenric Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (772) 01-5341.