ST. PETERSBURG — Sen. Bill Nelson is ready to talk about something other than Hurricane Michael.

In his first appearance outside the Florida Panhandle since the Category 4 storm made landfall last week, Nelson met with scientists and gulf businesses in St. Petersburg on another problem facing the state: red tide.

Though technically an official visit to the area, not a campaign stop, it certainly sounded political. He and other Congressional Democrats took turns criticizing the environmental record of Nelson's rival, Gov. Rick Scott.

Afterward, Nelson hopped into a four-seat charter plane out of St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport for a similar stop on Florida's east coast.

The 76-year-old Democrat said it's time for voters to hear from him with less than three weeks until all ballots are cast.

"I'm going to campaign," Nelson said. "I've spent the last week in the Panhandle in those storm ravaged counties, and have done everything I can do and they know to call me if they are getting any hiccups. But in the meantime, I'm going to continue to make my case to the people."

Scott has taken a different approach. Though his U.S. Senate campaign continues to assail Nelson via television airwaves, the 65-year-old Republican governor is bunkering down in North Florida indefinitely to focus on recovery efforts, avoiding traditional events — reporters and other issues, too — for the foreseeable future.

Scott came to Quincy Tuesday for the second time since Michael roared through. He had lunch in town and took notes during a 45-minute meeting with county and city leaders.

Gov. Rick Scott meets with Gadsden County officials in Quincy. Steve Bousquet, Tampa Bay Times
Gov. Rick Scott meets with Gadsden County officials in Quincy. Steve Bousquet, Tampa Bay Times

He told the people in Gadsden he would help them, and they appreciated it, and everybody wanted to get a picture taken with the governor who's not campaigning, and Scott, as always, cheerfully complied.

"I'm going to say this," Gadsden County Sheriff Morris Young said as he nodded toward Scott. "We've got to let folks know that this man helped us."
Gadsden, a Democratic stronghold northwest of Tallahassee, has two confirmed hurricane-related deaths. Schools are closed indefinitely. Many residents struggle to get by and they work for local government, which issues checks at the end of the month. Many were broke when Michael hit.

"People really appreciate him coming in," U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee said of Scott. "His concern is not so much about a campaign but about their well-being."

This is what disaster politics looks like. On Tuesday, footage of Scott helping hurricane victims and hosting first responders in the governor's mansion made its way into a 30-second commercial.

Nelson can't compete with Scott's constant cable television appearances to talk about the latest death toll from Michael or Verizon's failure to restore cell service.

But Florida is a large state, and the concerns on the minds of voters in Pinellas County are much different than those in the Panhandle.

Michael's destructive wind and rain whizzed by without much damage, but the storm pushed red tide back in full force, bringing dead fish and deep stench back to Pinellas County beaches.

On Wednesday, a half dozen local Tampa Bay area news crews huddled beside a roundtable, lenses focused on Nelson as he listened to an Indian Beach resort manager lament losing long-time customers due to the poisoned gulf waters.

And other parts of the state untouched by the storm are expecting to hear from Nelson and Scott on the traditional issues of a campaign, like health care, Social Security and foreign policy.

It won't happen at a debate; Scott and Nelson reached an impasse Wednesday over when to reschedule a CNN debate cancelled by Michael.