As Tuesday's Republican primary in Florida's 19th Congressional District draws closer, the momentum is with Curt Clawson, first-time candidate and self-styled "outsider for Congress," over two candidates who have held office.
Clawson, onetime Purdue University basketball star and top executive with Honeywell and American National Can Company, leads the GOP primary field with 30 percent of the vote, according to a just-completed St. Pete Poll.
Trailing him is state Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto with 26 percent and former state Rep. Paige Kreegel at 21 percent.
Kreegel, a physician, also ran in the crowded 2012 primary won by Trey Radel, who resigned from Congress in January after pleading guilty to cocaine possession.
In the district — which encompasses Lee and Collier counties on Florida's southern Gulf Coast — the Republican nomination is likely tantamount to winning the special election later this year. All the GOP candidates are conservative and they agree on most issues.
But a victory by Clawson is likely to have a national impact by encouraging other outsiders and "anti-politicians" to run in U.S. House districts in which Republican congressmen are retiring or seeking another office.
"His campaign is similar to that of Gov. Rick Scott's effective outsider 2010 primary campaign, in which he defeated then-state Attorney General Bill McCollum, who was a longtime officeholder," veteran Florida elections analyst Jay O'Callaghan told Newsmax.
O'Callaghan also likened Clawson to former Republican Florida Sen. Connie Mack, who in 1982 — as a banker and first-time candidate — ran as an outsider and defeated several experienced politicians in the district that is now the 19th.
"Like Connie Mack, Clawson has outspent his more political rivals," O'Callaghan noted, "and unlike Mack, he does not have to win a majority because Florida has since abolished runoffs in primaries."
Mack's son, Connie Mack IV, who represented the district in the House from 2004 to 2012, has endorsed Clawson.
In the three months of the campaign, Clawson has spent $2.26 million compared to a combined $1.1 million spent by Benacquisto, Kreegel, and another candidate, businessman Michael Dreikhorn.
However, the Values Are Vital political action committee, headed by Kreegel's former finance director, has spent nearly $353,000 on his behalf and on attack ads and mailings opposing Clawson and Benacquisto. The Liberty and Leadership Fund, which supports Benacquisto, has spent $477,000 — mostly on TV broadsides and mailers against Clawson.
Clawson's relatively smooth ride to the nomination encountered a bit of a "speed bump" two weeks ago following charges over business dealings he had with a convicted pedophile in Utah that led to a stormy showdown between Clawson and his opponents at a joint press conference.
National conservatives are split on the race. Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, the Tea Party Express, and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky have weighed in for Clawson, while former Govs. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Sarah Palin of Alaska have come out strongly for Benacquisto.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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