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What is Scott’s allure?

By Jim Saunders
6/11/2010 © Health News Florida 

Rick Scott carries baggage from a massive health-fraud case and offers little political experience. But at least for now, the bald guy with sky-blue eyes has caught the imagination of Florida Republican voters.

With conservatives thirsty for political change --- and the multimillionaire Scott able to finance his own campaign --- the former Columbia/HCA chief executive has surged to the lead in the Republican gubernatorial primary against Attorney General Bill McCollum.

Turn on the TV, and you likely will see Scott driving home an image of being a conservative businessman who is not a "career politician'' and can solve government problems.

So far, the strategy has worked. A poll released Thursday showed Scott with a double-digit lead over McCollum, the choice of much of the state Republican establishment.

Susan MacManus, a political-science professor at the University of South Florida, said it is unclear whether Scott will be able to maintain his support and momentum until the Aug. 24 primary.

"Will it last?'' she asked. "I think that's the biggest question mark of all.''

But MacManus and others say Scott has successfully tapped into anger and an anti-government mood among Republican voters.

"His ads are very direct, and people want directness now,'' said MacManus, who studies state politics. "They (voters) are really, really angry with politics as usual.'' 

Former state Republican Chairman Tom Slade said voters are disgusted with longtime politicians and want "competent fresh faces.'' In contrast to Scott, Slade said McCollum is "just branded with that stigma'' of being in politics for a long time.

"It is an overall wave attitude of, 'Throw the rascals out (and) put brand spanking-new fresh faces in,' '' said Slade, who has not endorsed a candidate in the race.

But while the outsider message might be appealing, Scott also enjoys an advantage that most upstart candidates never enjoy: a personal fortune that he can use to pay for television ads. The former chief executive of the Columbia/HCA hospital chain has already spent millions of dollars of his own money --- the News Service of Florida reported $15 million on Thursday --- to make himself known to voters.

It's a formula that also worked in California this week when former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina spent millions to win the Republican nominations for governor and U.S. senator.

Ormond Beach Republican activist Sally Gillies said she doesn't like the idea of candidates "buying elections'' and thinks it's important for them to build grass-roots support. But Gillies also said Scott's spending on television ads has allowed him to get his name out to voters.

"He's done it in two or three months, because he's on TV all the time, 24-7,'' said Gillies, a member of the Republican Executive Committee of Volusia County who has not decided which candidate she will support.

Scott entered the race in April, nearly a year after McCollum launched his campaign. But the new Quinnipiac University poll gave him a 44 percent to 31 percent lead over McCollum among likely Republican primary voters.

Scott's campaign greeted news of the poll by issuing a news release saying, in part, that Floridians are "fed up with the failed policies of career politicians.''

"Rick's conservative outsider message of fiscal responsibility, smaller government and accountability to taxpayers is clearly resonating with voters,'' spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said in the news release.

But as Scott has risen in the polls, the McCollum campaign has tried to offer voters a different picture, describing him this week as a "fraud.'' That stems primarily from a federal investigation of billing fraud that forced Columbia/HCA to pay a $1.7 billion fine after Scott left the company. 

"By primary day, every Floridian will know the role Rick Scott played in defrauding taxpayers in the largest Medicare fraud scheme in American history,'' McCollum campaign manager Matt Williams said in a statement posted on McCollum's website.

Scott addresses the issue in a television ad and says he was not involved in the fraud. But the questions likely will follow him throughout the campaign.

"If he could wash that off of him some way, he'd be looking pretty golden,'' Slade said.

University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett said in an e-mail Thursday that in "normal times" he would expect the issue to hurt Scott's support as more people learn about the extent of the fraud and corruption at Columbia/HCA while Scott was in charge.

"But these are not normal times, and outsider candidates seem to be doing well around the country,'' Jewett said, "and he has ton of money from his time at HCA, so we will see what happens.''

Scott, who lives in Naples, also has made business success a selling point in the campaign. His TV ads include a catchy phrase, "Let's get to work,'' that bolster the image of Scott taking a business-like approach to running government and solving the state's problems.

That could be appealing to Republican voters, who argue across the country that government spending is out of control --- though many of those arguments center on federal spending.

"He says he's a businessman,'' Gillies said. "I think we're real big on businesspeople and outsiders this year.''

McCollum, who represented a Central Florida district in Congress for 20 years, will not be able to compete with Scott financially or sell himself as a businessman.

But while he steps up attacks on Scott, he enjoys some advantages in the race. As an example, former Gov. Jeb Bush --- perhaps the most popular figure in the state GOP --- has already made a television ad supporting McCollum.

--Capital Bureau Chief Jim Saunders can be reached at 850-228-0963 or by e-mail at jim.saunders@healthnewsflorida.org.