Gov. Rick Scott used his election-year State of the State speech Tuesday to draw a sharp contrast between his own "courage" in bolstering Florida's economy and the "terrible mess" left behind by his predecessor and probable fall opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist.
Setting the stage for a grueling fight in the most important governor's race of 2014, Scott took direct aim at Crist's record in a 30-minute speech dominated by short, punchy sentences and emotional references to his own hard-scrabble childhood, including "Christmas without any presents."
"A lot has happened since I spoke to you last year," Scott told the Legislature on the opening day of the session in Tallahassee. "I could talk about how our unemployment rate is now down to 6.3 percent; how our crime rate is at a 42-year low; how we have invested record funding in protecting our environment while our tourism industry is breaking records."
Without mentioning Crist by name, Scott described a Florida "in a hole" and "in retreat" with 11 percent unemployment and $28 billion in debt in 2010, the year Crist opted not to seek re-election as governor and made an unsuccessful independent bid for U.S. Senate.
Scott criticized Crist for taking billions of dollars in federal stimulus money that drove Florida's economy "into the ground." Crist has said that without the money, the state would have had to lay off teachers and conditions would have been much worse.
"Some say these statistics were all because of a global recession," Scott said. "They say it doesn't matter who was running our state — that anyone would have been just a victim of the times. I disagree."
Returning to the theme a short time later, Scott said: "Let's be honest about it. We inherited a terrible mess. Growing unemployment. Dangerous levels of debt. Growing deficits and a crippling housing market."
Crist responded after the speech, saying, "Sadly, for three years, Rick Scott has only delivered campaign talking points and pay-to-play politics. The people have had enough."
Outside the House chamber, about 150 of the Dream Defenders loudly protested Scott's policies such as "stand your ground." The protesters ignored the Senate sergeant-at-arms' demand that they stop singing or be removed, and were allowed to stay.
Scott renewed his call for $500 million in tax and fee cuts. He called on legislators to hold the line on college tuition, abolish 15 percent tuition differential hikes at select state universities and tuition hikes tied to inflation.
He avoided any mention of a hot-button issue that's a priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford: in-state tuition for college students who came to Florida as children and are undocumented immigrants.
Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz in separate speeches pushed their priorities: tougher laws targeting sex predators, tighter residency rules for lawmakers, and an expansion of a voucher program paid for with corporate tax credits.
Scott made no mention of those issues. His speech glossed over transportation, the environment and health care. He didn't even mention Medicaid expansion, a dominant issue in 2013.
The Republican governor's speech on the opening day of the annual legislative session was more personal than his previous efforts. It was a template for an effort to re-engineer his biographical story to better connect with Floridians and battle low poll numbers.
The former health care executive, who spent $73 million of his own fortune to get elected, spoke about "my story" — his poor childhood in the Midwest and how he and his wife Ann, as young newlyweds in Newport, R.I., were so poor they slept in sleeping bags on the floor.
Describing himself in the third person, Scott spoke of living in public housing, not knowing his biological father, seeing the family car repossessed, buying a struggling donut shop, then another, and learning the value of hard work from his mother, Esther, who died in 2012.
Scott singled out five Floridians whom he described as living the American dream because of Florida's recovering economy, including a teacher battling cancer and a Puerto Rican man climbing the corporate ladder.
The governor hailed a third visitor, Freda Voltaire, who came to Miami from Haiti when she was 8, got a business degree from Florida State University and now works in the bilingual sales department at AT&T. The loudest applause was when Scott introduced Jimbo Fisher, head football coach of national champs Florida State.
The speech revealed a shift in Scott's election-year strategy that suggests many Floridians are still not convinced of the economic revival at the heart of his campaign. Scott has dropped the catch-phrase "It's working" to describe his agenda, and unveiled a new phrase that suggests the job isn't finished.
"We have more work left to do, so let's keep working," he said.
Contributing: Mary Ellen Klas, Kathleen McGrory