WASHINGTON - In a year when Democratic candidates are distancing themselves from the White House, the party's Senate hopeful in Florida was anxious to share the stage with President Clinton.
Unfortunately for Hugh Rodham, only about 250 people came to see him with his brother-in-law, a turnout that tells the tale of the Senate contest.
Rodham, a political novice who needed a runoff to defeat an eccentric foe, has not mounted anything close to the campaign firepower needed to pose a credible challenge to popular GOP incumbent Connie Mack.
And Mack, a conservative former U.S. House member from Cape Coral who barely won election six years ago, finds himself facing a weak challenger related both philosophically and legally to Clinton at a time when such ties are not political advantages.
But to Mack, the Senate election is less about Bill Clinton and more about whether he delivered on the theme he ran on six years ago - less taxes, less government, less spending, mo re freedom.
"The issue is not the president and the issue is not the personality of Hugh Rodham or Connie Mack," said Mack. "It is what we stand for. I have been making a case for the people of the state for six years. I think we are better off as a society and a nation with less government and more freedom."
Mack, a 54-year-old former banker and grandson of the legendary baseball owner, has been a steady GOP vote in the Senate, opposing most of the Clinton agenda and canceling out Florida colleague Bob Graham on many of the main national issues of the past two years.
In fact, it was Mack's appearance on national television criticizing President Clinton's health care plan only minutes after he unveiled it that helped spark Rodham's candidacy. Rodham, whose older sister Hillary Rodham Clinton helped author the plan, did not want Mack to get a free ride to re-election.
Rodham, 44, a former Dade County assistant public defender, criticizes Mack as being out of touch with the concern s of ordinary Florida residents, citing his votes against gun control, family and medical leave and the new education bill as examples where Mack strayed. Rodham, who declined to be interviewed, describes Mack as a "knee-jerk obstructionist."
The Democrat, who is being backed financially by organized labor and other hard-core party activists, also hit Mack on his support for the Mexican free trade pact, one policy area where Rodham differs from Clinton.
But Rodham's problem has been getting w ord of his views to voters. His campaign has been seen as an impossible mission since the start. He stumbled badly out of the gate when he was forced to confirm he lived in Florida for more than a decade before registering to vote in 1991.
He has not had enough money to launch anything but a token television advertising campaign against Mack, who has millions of dollars to air positive commercials stressing his work on cutting spending, protecting the environment and cancer education.
Those last two is sues could be subject to debate since Mack, despite work against offshore oil drilling, is not rated highly by conservation groups. He also continued to accept campaign contributions from tobacco companies despite his concerted push for better cancer screening.
Without the ability to match Mack on television, Rodham can not be competitive and polls show him trailing by as much as 40 points.
If re-elected, Mack said he will concentrate on enacting his plan to establish an independent federal commission to recommend politically difficult spending cuts Congress is reluctant to make.
He says he would also like to see a health reform bill passed, one backed by both parties, not one that calls for the level of government oversight envisioned in the Clinton plan.
"I am satisfied in the sense that we didn't pass Bill Clinton's plan, but I am not satisfied that we did not pass anything," he said. "I hope next year we can put together a plan there is general support for."
Despite the lac k of a serious challenge, Mack is campaigning, appearing at political events, raising money, airing ads. "The point is that in any contest, it is not over until it is over," said Mack, who said he is grateful for the wide support he is receiving.
"There is something humbling about the fact that I find myself in this position," he said.
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