TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — It's five months before Florida's Senate Republican primary, but the race is already getting personal, with former Sen. George LeMieux claiming that decades-old altercations show GOP frontrunner Connie Mack IV doesn't have the temperament for higher office.
Mack has represented Southwest Florida in Congress since 2005, but LeMieux has concentrated his attacks on Mack's wilder, younger years: Two road rage incidents, an arrest at a Jacksonville bar and a bar fight with a Major League Baseball star.
"My experience in these types of circumstances is that where there's smoke there's fire and where there's one or two events, there's more," said LeMieux, who stepped down in January after serving out the remaining 16 months of Republican Mel Martinez' Senate term.
Mack's campaign said the 44-year-old lawmaker won't discuss the incidents with The Associated Press, saying he has already answered questions about them. The campaign has chalked up the altercations, the last of which occurred two decades ago, to him being "young and foolish."
A younger Mack defended his actions. When Mack was deposed in 1996 for a lawsuit he brought following a 1992 barroom brawl with then-Atlanta Braves outfielder Ron Gant, Mack claimed that in each incident he was minding his own business and sober and that trouble found him. His accounts were contradicted in two of the cases by other witnesses
"So you were just again the unlucky guy in the wrong place at the wrong time?" a lawyer asked Mack.
"I guess so," Mack responded.
The winner of the Aug. 14 GOP primary will face U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat.
The altercations were used against Mack, the great-grandson of Baseball Hall of Fame manager Connie Mack, when he first ran for the House in a firmly Republican district.
"I don't know that it really will make that big of a difference" this time, said Susan Moore, chairwoman of the Escambia County Republican Party. "Hopefully people have the capability of realizing we don't always make great decisions, but that doesn't mean we're not qualified to seek political office and move on."
Mack broke his ankle during the fight with Gant and later sued the baseball star and Calico Jack's, the now-closed Atlanta bar where they fought. Gant's and the bar's lawyers tried then to depict Mack as having a habit of getting into fights. A jury ruled in favor of Mack, but awarded him no damages or legal fees.
Mack explained each incident during a deposition taken four years after the Gant fight:
_ Sometime around 1987, when Mack was in college, he was driving and stopped at a drawbridge with friends in Palm Beach County. One of his friends was screaming to mimic comedian Howie Mandel, which apparently upset another driver. When the man approached Mack's car, Mack got out and the man jumped on him. The two wrestled and struck each other. When the drawbridge went back down, Mack got back in his car and drove off.
_ Within the next year, Mack's girlfriend was driving his car when a driver forced her off the road. Both cars stopped and Mack got out. The other driver tried to punch Mack, so Mack punched him. The driver went back to his car, grabbed a baseball bat and chased Mack around the car and smashed its windows.
_ In 1989, Mack and two friends were at a Jacksonville nightclub and Mack had nothing to drink. A bouncer asked the three men to leave because one of Mack's friends was violating the club's no-hats policy. Mack said he never resisted or cursed, though he was still arrested. Mack pleaded no contest to resisting an officer without violence, and his record was later expunged.
_ In 1992, Mack used Gant's table to sign a credit card receipt while getting ready to leave Calico Jack's. Gant shoved Mack twice. The second time, he was hurled toward a crowd, which pushed him back. As he was thrust forward toward Gant, Mack braced for a fall and Gant got him in a headlock. He struck Gant in the groin area in an attempt to free himself, fearing he might be choked to death.
Court records reveal conflicting accounts in the Jacksonville and Atlanta encounters.
Gant said Mack bumped him three times and refused to get out of the way as Gant was trying to get to his table. Gant pushed Mack aside and Mack then tried to tackle him. They fell to the ground and tussled until a bouncer pulled Gant off Mack. A waitress said Mack bought about 20 pitchers of beer and rounds of shots while at the bar for five hours. She said Mack had trouble walking, was drunk and obnoxious and started the fight. Mack said he was feeling no effect from the two to four beers and one shot he had while at the bar for less than two hours.
_ In the Jacksonville incident, the nightclub manager said he was called to the entrance where Mack refused to take off his hat. He asked Mack to remove it and Mack responded with a vulgarity. An off-duty police officer was called over and Mack tried provoking him, repeatedly calling him a "piece of (excrement)" and refusing to leave.
Mack's campaign said it has not received any phone calls or comments from voters concerned about the incidents.
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