Republican U.S. Senate hopefuls George LeMieux and Adam Hasner traded barbs in back-to-back teleconferences Tuesday, with each attempting to claim the conservative high ground.
"Talk is cheap," LeMieux said of Hasner. "But his years in Tallahassee show he voted for earmarks," which LeMieux called "a form of corruption."
By contrast LeMieux, who served 16 months in the Senate as then-Gov. Charlie Crist's appointee filling the unexpired term of Mel Martinez, touted his "92 percent" rating from the American Conservative Union.
Hasner, a term-limited Florida House member and former majority leader, called LeMieux's earmark broadside "a desperate attempt to distort my record."
"He only wants you to look at 16 months of his life. I don't have to reinvent myself as a conservative," said Hasner, of Palm Beach County.
Tuesday's dueling teleconferences highlighted the high-stakes maneuvering by two leading candidates in the race to unseat Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. A third announced GOP hopeful, Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos, spent Tuesday in Tallahassee working on the state budget -- but he wasn't spared from friendly fire.
"I voted against the cigarette tax," Hasner said, referencing Haridopolos' vote for the levy.
"I've been attacked for being too conservative," Hasner continued. "Like Charlie Crist's attacks on Marco Rubio, George LeMieux is launching the same kinds of attacks.
"LeMieux was the maestro of Charlie Crist. When Crist moved to the center, it was at the direction of LeMieux. Now he's trying to reinvent himself for 2012."
LeMieux, a Fort Lauderdale attorney and longtime Crist confidant, downplays the Crist connection and plays up his fiscal record in the Senate.
"I have never supported an earmark; my competitors have. I never voted for a tax increase," he says.
Hasner, meantime, touts his legislative tenure under Rubio and his commitment to conservative causes. He was joined in the teleconference by RedState.com writer Erick Erickson and announced that he had received the endorsement of radio talk-show host Mark Levin.
But while Invoking Rubio's name, Rubio's staff made it clear that Hasner has not received the newly elected senator's endorsement. Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos told Sunshine State News that Rubio "has said several times that he is neutral in the primary -- in both the U.S. Senate and presidential races."
Hasner's conservative credentials also have been called into question. The Christian Coalition gave him an "F" grade, largely due to his vote against a parental notification law and his support for casino gaming in South Florida.
South Florida-based political consultant Roger Stone calls the race for the GOP nomination "wide open with no clear front-runner. Any conservative with money could win this nomination."
Though relatively unknown outside South Florida, Hasner has gained traction partly through his wife, Jillian, who advised California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman in 2010. According to the Sacramento Bee, Mrs. Hasner earned $30,000 a month working for the e-Bay executive's challenge to Democrat Jerry Brown.
For all their jousting, LeMieux and Hasner appear to agree on most fiscal and social issues. They both profess to take hard lines on immigration. LeMieux volunteers that he is "pro-life" and opposes same-sex marriage. Hasner says he voted against red-light cameras and funding for a pill mill database.
Each roundly condemns the Obama administration on NASA funding cuts, though Hasner said future decisions must be made in the context of the overall budget.
Recalling his days in the state House, Hasner said, "I consistently voted to cut taxes and reduce spending. I supported legitimate spending, like Marco Rubio and Dan Webster."
LeMieux countered that his experience in Washington, working with a Democratic majority in the Senate, gives him a leg up.
"I have passed bills that cracked down on Medicare fraud and held rating agencies accountable. I have worked with 59 Democrats. Adam and Mike can't do what I can do on day one," LeMieux said.
Hasner doesn't buy the "experience" argument, and he was anything but bipartisan as he thrashed Nelson at home and abroad.
"Just like spending, taxes and the debt, Bill Nelson is a rubber stamp for the Obama administration's policies toward Israel. He's been silent as President Obama dangerously repositions America's support for Israel.
"The bottom line is that you cannot be a cheerleader for Barack Obama, like Bill Nelson has been, and be a strong supporter of Israel at the same time," Hasner told Sunshine State News.
Haridopolos campaign spokesman Tim Baker said the senator was "focused exclusively on the session" and would not be hitting the campaign trail until the Legislature adjourns.
Though Haridopolos has proven to be a formidable fund-raiser, outhustling Nelson for campaign cash in the first quarter, Baker said, "The only thing he will block out time for right now is governing."
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.