STUART, Fla. — A few steps away from the St. Lucie River, which has been choked lately with thick blue-green algae that made neighbors sick, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida sat solemnly with a group of elected officials, scientists and activists who had anxious questions about the toxic bloom. A day earlier, Mr. Nelson’s political challenger, Gov. Rick Scott, had begun airing an eye-catching television ad that blamed the senator and the federal government for failing to prevent the environmental crisis.
The meeting on Friday was Mr. Nelson’s second visit in a month. And this time, he declared, he was fighting back — not against the algae, but against the governor.
“I was playing nice-nice when I was here before, but I’m going to lay out the truth,” Mr. Nelson said. “Governor Scott, in the last eight years, has systematically dismembered and dismantled the environmental agencies of the state of Florida.”
Mr. Nelson, rarely a firebrand, then returned to his wonky element, delivering a long history lesson on water management and environmental policy. His audience nodded in agreement. But only a dozen people sat at the table listening to him. Mr. Scott’s ad, on the other hand, with its alarming footage of contaminated Lake Okeechobee juxtaposed with an unflattering image of Mr. Nelson, would reach thousands of potential voters.
Faced with a formidable challenge by the wealthy governor, Mr. Nelson, a three-term incumbent, has been pushed into the unexpected position of underdog in one of the most closely watched Senate races of the midterms. After 18 years in office, Mr. Nelson remains less known than his opponent, and he is at risk of losing his seat in a battleground state where Democrats, fueled by anti-Trump energy, have notched four recent bellwether election victories.
“The only time I see Bill Nelson is five months before every election,” President Trump taunted at a rally in Tampa last week. “And after a while, you forget: ‘Who’s the senator?’”
Panicked Democrats started appealing to Mr. Nelson’s team earlier in the summer to ratchet up the campaign. In the past, Mr. Nelson has won relatively easy re-election, but he faced weak opponents in years favorable to Democrats. In contrast, Mr. Scott has built a political brand around the state’s rebounding economy and has proved to be an aggressive campaigner.
The senator has recently become more visible, helped in part by heavy media coverage of the Trump administration’s unpopular policy of separating families who cross the border illegally. Mr. Nelson made headlines when he led an effort to inspect a large shelter for migrant children in South Florida. But that event was something of an anomaly for Mr. Nelson: He has never been a cable news fixture with a deep national imprint.
“He is so modest,” said DeAnna Dean, who heads the Democratic Party in heavily Republican Sumter County, home to the state’s fast-growing retirement community, The Villages. “He needs to get out there, and we need to tell people, ‘This is the man you can trust.’”
Mr. Nelson is a low-key, gentlemanly product of an earlier Florida and a different Democratic Party. He is a politician easier to envision in the president’s box at a University of Florida football game than posing for selfies in diverse South Beach. When he first won a state House seat in 1972, President Richard M. Nixon was running for re-election and Florida was effectively a one-party state controlled by white Democrats, with relatively few blacks or Latinos in their ranks. Over time, many of Florida’s traditional Democratic voters drifted to the Republican Party as they did in other Southern states. The G.O.P. now controls every statewide elective office in Florida except one: Mr. Nelson’s.
In a brief interview after a July campaign event in Miami, Mr. Nelson put the blame for his relatively low profile on his having to spend part of each workweek in Washington, limiting his public exposure back home — though most senators must juggle a similar schedule. Florida’s growing population, with newcomers moving in from other states and from abroad, also requires constant new introductions for a senator who is only on the ballot once every six years, Mr. Nelson said.
“If you’re a senator from Delaware, the population doesn’t change,” he said. “This state is growing at 1,000 people a day, and a lot of people that are already here don’t identify with Florida politics. They still identify with the politics up north where they come from.”
Mr. Nelson possesses extensive knowledge of Florida issues, ranging from the space program to commercial regulations to the environment. His political currency is a product of his five statewide electoral victories: he won terms as the state treasurer and insurance commissioner before reaching the Senate.
But the race is likely to turn on whether he can energize Democrats and win over independents by harnessing widespread distaste for Mr. Trump around the state. At the recent Miami event, as Mr. Nelson tried to focus on United States policy toward Russia and control of the Supreme Court, a woman interrupted him by shouting “Impeachment!”
Mr. Nelson’s plan has been to hold off running expensive television advertising until the fall, when it will matter the most, and to be ready to counter any last-minute spending by Mr. Scott, who poured $10 million of his own money into his gubernatorial campaign in the final days of the 2014 race.
Mr. Nelson’s strategy has so far left Mr. Scott free to set the terms of the race, as he has tried to do with the ad on the algae bloom.
“You need another commercial, because you have been there,” Dr. R. Grant Gilmore, a veteran research biologist, told Mr. Nelson at the environmental meeting in Stuart on Friday. “You have been fighting, and the truth needs to come out.”
“Take off the kid gloves,” said Mike Conner, an outdoor writer and fishing guide. “You need to do it soon.”
Mr. Scott, 65, has inched up in polls since he entered the race in April against Mr. Nelson, who is 75. Surveys point to a tight race in a state where major elections are often decided by a single percentage point.
Democrats say the fact that Mr. Scott hasn’t surged ahead shows that he probably isn’t going to. He won his two terms as governor very narrowly, without receiving more than 50 percent of the vote either time. The Democrats expect his poll numbers to drop once Mr. Nelson starts reminding voters that Mr. Scott was a Tea Party favorite who has a friend in the White House. Mr. Scott, who headed a political action committee for Mr. Trump during the 2016 campaign, avoided appearing at the president’s rally in Tampa last week.
Unable to compete with Mr. Scott’s early advertising onslaught, Democrats have instead tried to help Mr. Nelson by organizing field teams to remind voters about the race. Two women who answered the door during one young volunteer’s recent canvass in heavily Democratic Broward County had at best a hazy recollection of the senator.
“My mom was telling me about him,” said Sandra Renninger, 53, of Sunrise.
A few doors down, Susan Charboneau, 70, a retired hypnotherapist who moved to Florida from North Carolina four years ago, said she “remembered something” about Mr. Nelson.
He’s the only Democrat running for Senate, the canvasser informed her. “Or I could vote for Mickey Mouse,” Ms. Charboneau joked. (The Disney character is, in fact, occasionally listed as Florida voters’ write-in choice.)
What may be Mr. Nelson’s most serious shortfall in the race so far is his failure to keep up with Mr. Scott in campaigning to a key demographic group: the state’s Latinos who tend to vote less Democratic in Florida than elsewhere in the country because many of them are Cuban Americans who historically lean Republican. Mr. Scott, who learned some Spanish before his 2014 campaign, broadcast two Spanish-language ads on Telemundo last month during the World Cup. The network drew higher ratings in South Florida than anywhere else in the country during the tournament.
Poll after poll has shown Mr. Scott holding his own among Hispanic voters, including Puerto Ricans who relocated to Florida after Hurricane Maria and were expected to lean toward the Democrats. The Puerto Rican influx so far has not been accompanied by a surge in Democratic voter registrations in Central Florida, a swing region, according to data tracked by Steve Schale, a Democratic political consultant.
The same polls suggest how Mr. Nelson might win over those voters: by tying Mr. Scott to Mr. Trump, who remains unpopular among Puerto Ricans because of the federal government’s slow and problematic relief efforts after the hurricane.
Mr. Nelson was recently endorsed by Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz of San Juan, who became a darling of the political left after criticizing Mr. Trump’s response to the storm. And at the Miami campaign event, held at a new Puerto Rican restaurant, Mr. Nelson was welcomed by a former mayor of Miami, Maurice Ferré, a Puerto Rican who praised the senator for having first telephoned him a decade ago to discuss matters important to the island. Mr. Ferré declared that Mr. Nelson has “el corazón boricua,” a Puerto Rican heart.
Even so, Armando Figueroa, a Puerto Rican sipping a Medalla beer at the bar, said he had no idea who Mr. Nelson was. Mr. Figueroa has lived in Florida for six years.
“We Puerto Ricans love politics — it’s like a sport — and I watch the local news; he doesn’t appear on there much,” said Mr. Figueroa, 41, who like many Puerto Ricans is registered to vote without a party affiliation. “He’s Rick Scott’s opponent? Him I know of because he has been more involved in Puerto Rican issues. I have a good impression of Rick Scott.”
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