Three months ago, as his campaign bus traveled along Florida's Gulf Coast, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott took questions for an hour, veering further to the right with each answer.
For the reporters on the bus, it became a bingo of conservative talking points: Arizona-style immigration laws. Federal health-care repeal. Pro-life laws. More offshore oil drilling. And the winning question: "Do you believe in global warming?"
"No," Scott said. Asked to expand, he said, "I have not been convinced."
His tone left no room for argument. It reflects how the 57-year-old former hospital tycoon approaches politics and business: all or nothing. More than any other statewide candidate in Florida, Scott is a die-hard conservative -- "the real deal," a top GOP lobbyist says. Even more than Marco Rubio, the Tea Party darling whose U.S. Senate campaign in a three-way free-for-all is largely overshadowing Scott.
If Scott wins in the Sunshine State, it will be a clean sweep for Republicans, who are expected to win the Senate race and already control the state Legislature. A Republican coup would have an impact far beyond the next term: Florida will likely add two new congressional seats after the 2010 Census and the governor holds veto power in federal redistricting, a critical position as the parties strive to draft the electoral map in their favor. The Republican National Committee is also targeting the state's 27 electoral votes for victory in 2012, as signaled by the selection of Tampa as the site of the party's convention.
Ask Florida Democratic strategists which Republican they fear most, and more often than not, you'll hear Scott, not Rubio. "As a Democrat, Rick Scott is more scary to me," says Screven Watson, a Tallahassee-based operative. "You put together Rick Scott and a legislature that has turned to the right, watch out."
President Barack Obama won Florida in 2008 and Democrats enjoy a 600,000-voter registration advantage. Yet a week before the election, Republicans hold the edge in early voting in Florida and polling calls the governor's race a toss-up. The nasty slugfest spilled into the national arena Monday in a live CNN debate marked by name-calling and accusations of cheating.
Scott's opponent is Democrat Alex Sink, a 62-year-old former Bank of America executive and Florida's current chief financial officer. Sink, who won her first campaign in 2006, still appears uneasy on the stump after a year and a half of campaigning. As a candidate, she leans toward the middle, using her North Carolina twang to sell herself as a "political outsider" and "fiscal conservative with a plan."
Her chief strategist is Steve Schale, the man credited with helping Obama win Florida in 2008, though she hasn't campaigned with Obama, preferring Bill Clinton on the stump. Nonetheless, Schale is using his Obama playbook to target independents in the voter-rich corridor between Tampa and Orlando by emphasizing Sink's background as a successful businesswoman and calling for change in a state capital plagued by Republican corruption. A number of political observers believe Sink's campaign is a test run to determine whether the president's winning model can help him repeat his performance in 2012.
To boost Sink, the Florida Democratic Party is trying to emulate the Obama campaign's grassroots prowess, launching a massive voter-mobilization effort, the party's first coordinated campaign in a non-presidential election year. The Democratic Governor's Association is helping, pumping $6 million into the race, according to the group, the most it has ever poured into a race.
Democrats hoped to battle the national Republican tide by reminding voters that Republicans hold the state Capitol. But Scott beat them to the punch. Pitching himself as an outsider, he began his upstart campaign bashing the Republican establishment in Tallahassee and the Democrats in Washington. In his primary contest, Scott defeated state Attorney General Bill McCollum, a stalwart party man who served two decades in Congress and acted as House manager for Bill Clinton's impeachment, as well as open opposition of the GOP establishment, including three former presidential contenders.
McCollum and a number of independent groups hit Scott with a barrage of negative advertisements about his troubled past as CEO of Columbia/HCA, once the nation's largest hospital chain. Scott served for three years at the helm before resigning in 1997 amid a federal investigation. The company later pleaded guilty to 14 felonies and paid a record $1.7 billion fine. In a slick TV ad, Scott defended his company and claimed responsibility for mistakes.
Despite his past, Scott appealed to disaffected Republicans and Tea Party sympathizers, outflanking McCollum on the right, painting him as liberal on immigration, abortion, and taxes. Scott vastly outspent his opponent, becoming a ubiquitous face on television and giving him rock-star status as he campaigned.
But the questions about Scott's past -- which his Democratic opponent is now reinforcing -- have sent his unfavorable numbers above 50 percent. He ranks among Dan Maes in Colorado, Joe Miller in Alaska, and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware as the four most unpopular Republican candidates in the country, according to Public Policy Polling, a Democratic outfit.
Scott didn't try to shift to the center in the general -- unlike Senate candidate Rubio, a Tea Party favorite who appeared to soften his stance on immigration and other issues. Rubio understood he needed broader support to win, and political observers say he felt comfortable on the center-right as state House speaker. Scott, by contrast, is a purist, first-time candidate beholden to no one, which is what scares Democrats -- and even some Republicans.
As governor, Scott wants to eliminate the state's community-development agency -- important in a growing state with a variety of land-use challenges -- and slash state spending, including $1 billion from a $2.4 billion prison agency budget over the course of seven years. His administration would also give new life to legislation that failed under Gov. Charlie Crist, such as efforts to require women seeking an abortion to view an ultrasound and listen to a doctor describe the fetus. Another bill he supports would abolish teacher tenure by linking instructor recertification and pay increases to student performance.
Sink calls this a radical agenda. Republicans see shades of former Gov. Jeb Bush, but even Bush realized he couldn't shut down state government. With Scott, people aren't so sure. It led 16 newspaper editorial boards in Florida to endorse Sink, including one that hadn't supported a Democrat for governor since 1986.
Her campaign insists the so-called enthusiasm gap is minimal in Florida and released internal polling showing that more Democrats were "very interested" in the election than four years ago. The campaign is motivating Democrats by the politics of fear. But her success is contingent on support from independents and even moderate Republicans who feel uncomfortable voting for a candidate whose company bilked millions from taxpayers.
As for the national GOP surge, Schale, the campaign's strategist, likes to remind people that Florida doesn't always catch the political fever. In 1994, the last time the state elected a Democratic governor, Republicans took control of Congress.
If the CNN debate is any sign, Democrats are willing to do anything to win again. Sink was caught reading a text message from one of her advisers during a commercial break, in violation of the debate's rules -- right after a discussion of ethical conduct.