After Mike Haridopolos, Adam Hasner and Jeff Atwater successively bowed out of the GOP race for U.S. Senate, ex-U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon says he is taking his turn as the "authentic conservative."
In an exclusive interview with Sunshine State News, the former seven-term Republican congressman and currentphysician specializing in internal medicine acknowledges his late entry presents an uphill challenge.
"I thought Haridopolos would have made a great senator," Weldon said of his fellow Melbourne-area resident.
"Then Hasner got in, and a lot of my friends got on board. Then Connie [Mack] got in, and I thought he would walk away with it," said the 58-year-old doctor.
But none of those scenarios panned out as planned. The latest Quinnipiac poll shows 40 percent of Republican voters still undecided in the race that also includes former Sen. George LeMieux and former Army Col. Mike McCalister.
Though Mack received the endorsement of presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney late last month, Weldon believes he has a better shot against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson than does the Naples congressman.
Weldon notes, for example, that Mack suffers from an apparent gender gap -- favored by only 35 percent of women in the Q-poll, and 53 percent still undecided.
Weldon, a staunch pro-life candidate, also believes he can mobilize and capture social conservatives, a crucial voting bloc in the GOP primary.
"When I ran in 1994 as a social conservative, I joined the [House] Pro-Life caucus. Connie didn't. I was on the Values Actions Team [a family and marriage issues group]. Connie wasn't.
"I introduced a bill to ban human cloning, It's about actions, not words. It's about who fights for values," Weldon said.
While some GOP insiders see the party's Senate primary as a two-man race between Mack and LeMieux, Weldon sees Mack as his main opponent.
"I'm not going to get to the right of Connie on fiscal issues," the Long Island native says. "He's moved that direction in the past two years."
But Weldon maintains that his solid social conservatism, paired with flinty spending habits, gives him an overall edge. He said he expects to receive "several" endorsements from conservative congressmen and senators in the coming weeks.
An important impetus for launching his belated Senate bid came from "private citizens who came to me to express disappointment in the [GOP] field, and told me I'd be a better candidate."
One Jacksonville area Republican activist, speaking on condition of anonymity, praised Weldon's "unblemished record" on "life issues." This veteran party insider condemned Mack's vote for "the destruction of human embryos."
Others worry about Mack's performance on the campaign trail. At a lightly attended news event in Pensacola, where he tried to rally support for the stalled Keystone pipeline project, Mack reportedly called a heckler a "jackass." Mack has strenuously denied that account, and his campaign spokesman, David James, declined any comment.
On a personal level, Weldon is about as low-key as the bass guitar he played for "The Second Amendments," a now-defunct bipartisan quartet of fellow congressmen.
Speaking softly, and with measured words, Weldon, a husband of 32 years and father of two children (24 and 13), has no problem keeping his cool -- even in the face of congenitally left-leaning newspaper editorial boards.
While in Congress, he was criticized in some quarters for introducing legislation requiring a federal review of the Terri Schiavo case. The pro-life Weldon, who helped pioneer local AIDS treatment after entering private practice in 1987, was accused -- mainly by liberal journalists -- of being a faux conservative for seeking government oversight in the dying woman's case.
Weldon also has been chided for not doing enough to dismantle the U.S. Department of Education when he sat on the House Education Subcommittee.
The former Army major says he is ready to rejoin the battle.
He is unabashed about the need to protect life -- born and unborn -- and he calls the Department of Education "an inefficient use of tax dollars."
"It would be better to send the money directly to the local school systems, not through Washington or Tallahassee," he says.
As for federal agencies in general, Weldon's litmus test is "look at what taxpayers get in exchange for their money" and act accordingly.
Weldon is confident he can stand up to the GOP field in upcoming political events -- including a Leadership Florida gathering in Tallahassee and a Pinellas County Republican forum next Monday.
"I'm ready to debate, and I will fare very well. That will help me against Nelson, because I can argue the facts," he says.
As for campaign cash, Weldon admits "it's clearly a problem," but he says he's not overly concerned.
"Connie doesn't have a huge amount in the bank. I can close the money gap," he says.
Pledging a down payment of "$25,000 to $50,000" of his own money "to keep the lights on," Weldon expects to tap grassroots support and mobilize those legions of GOP social conservatives who have been futilely searching for their "authentic" candidate.
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.