Campaign Crawlers

Oranges and Lemons

Marco Rubio is doing sweetly -- but Rick Scott has left too many Republicans feeling sour.

By 9.1.10

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TAMPA -- Sixty-two days left. But who's counting? Last week's primary cleared a lot of political underbrush, leaving Florida with one major state-wide race that looks good for the conservative candidate, another that's problematic.

The problem is political newcomer Rick Scott, who confounded last-minute polls and the entire Florida Republican establishment by beating Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum by three points for the Republican nomination for governor. The operatically rich Scott spent about $50 million of his own money in the primary campaign, one of the nastiest in Florida's history. Now he wants those establishment types he carpet-bombed in the primary to help him raise money for the general.

Scott ran in the primary as an outsider, making him one of the few candidates who've recently run as an outsider who actually is an outsider. He made his unlikely fortune as a health care entrepreneur and executive and has never sought political office before. His name was not on the Rolodex of a single political consultant when he declared for the office just a few months ago. Rick Who? He's running for what?

Scott ran on conservative themes, promising among other things to cut state spending and to get at least as tough on illegal immigrants as Arizona has. He said the state's establishment Republicans, all of whom lined up behind McCollum in the primary race, have made a botch of things and he plans to use his business skills to clean up the mess they've made. In a year in which being an incumbent isn't an advantage, it worked.

Trouble is, Scott could now use some of these establishment screw-ups (his characterization) and "career politicians" to help him in what will surely be a tough race against his Democratic opponent, former banking executive and current Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink.

Though she's to the left of Scott on most issues, she supports ObamaCare, for example, she's not seen by Floridians who know her as a left geek. Unlike most Democratic office holders and wannabes, Sink has not only worked in the private sector most of her career but has succeeded there. She rose to be CEO of Bank of America's Florida operation. She can raise money and she will be difficult to run a negative campaign against. Even some Republicans say she is more predictable and less apt to shoot from the hip than the mercurial Scott.

Republicans held a "unity Rally," the first of many, in Tampa Monday with Scott, party officials, candidates, office-holders, fund raisers, and others who would be useful to Scott as he runs against Sink, who was able to keep her powder and her campaign cash dry during a primary where she faced only token opposition. There was a lot of smiling, air-kissing, and solidarity talk at the rally (had they been Democrats they would have sung "Kumbaya"). But many of the smiles were over gritted teeth. Though the official line is that Republicans are united behind Scott (and they may eventually be), the truth is lots of Republicans just don't like this guy. He takes about 40 percent negatives into a tough campaign.

McCollum himself hasn't yet said he will support Scott in the general. For now he and his team of CPAs are still trying to compile an exhaustive (and exhausting) list of all the nasty names Scott called McCollum during the campaign and all the over-the-top charges he made against him. McCollum may come around. But, understandably, he's still smarting now. If this campaign were conducted by the same rules of etiquette that apply in Major League Baseball, McCollum would still owe Scott about 10 brush-back pitches.

In addition to the nasty campaign, Florida Republicans are understandably concerned about the fact that Scott was CEO of HCA/Columbia when that hospital chain was accused of Medicare fraud, which eventually led to the company paying a record $1.7 billion in fines. Scott's exact responsibility in this, if any, was not ferreted out in the primary campaign, though the media and McCollum tried hard enough. The Sink Campaign will be all over it.

Hard to tell what will happen in this one over the next two months. But for now call it a toss-up, or leaning Sink.

CONSERVATIVE SENATE CANDIDATE Marco Rubio looks to be in much better shape than Scott. The youngish -- 39 -- former Florida House Speaker has run an inspiring campaign on conservative themes and a vow to vigorously oppose the efforts of Obama and his Democratic enablers to remake American along statist lines. Where Scott is fighting dislike and distrust in his own ranks as well as having to run against the Democrat, Rubio is well liked by most Florida Republicans, from establishment types to the grass roots.

Rubio has caught the attention of national conservatives -- George Will, Steve Forbes, Jim DeMint, Grover Norquist, et al. -- who say Rubio's promises to attempt to cut federal spending, to support limited government and push for a vigorous foreign policy based on keeping America the strongest military force in the world, are proof that he gets it, and that there is hope, with office holders like Rubio, that the Republican Party could recover from its fall from grace.

Whether Rubio wins the Senate seat or not, he's already performed a public service by forcing Florida's formerly RINO governor Charlie Crist to quit pretending to be a Republican. In April, trailing Rubio by two to one in some polls in a race for the Republican Senate nomination, Crist announced he would no longer run as a Republican, as he had said over and over he would, but would seek the office as an independent. Since then he's been trying to convince Florida voters that he feels very strongly both ways about just about everything. It isn't working.

The latest polls show Rubio leading Crist by about 10 points with Democrat Kendrick Meek trailing badly. As an independent, Crist faces some formidable arithmetic. With the popular and charismatic Rubio holding Crist to around 20 percent of Republican votes, Crist will have to get somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 percent of Democratic votes as well as at least half of independents to be competitive Nov. 2. He may need even more Democrats as there is more enthusiasm for this race among Republicans than among Democrats, and the R's may well win the turnout race by a substantial margin.

Tall order. Crist is gaining only about 35 percent of Democratic voters now, even though he has shifted almost all of his formerly conservative positions to the left to accommodate Democratic voters, who he sees as his only chance.

A lot can happen in two months and change. Crist has shown in the primary that he's capable of going negative. It didn't help him then, and it's even less likely to now with Crist being squeezed from both the left and right. For now, Advantage Rubio.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.