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Mud flies as Alex Sink and Rick Scott square off in governor's race debate

Democrat Alex Sink and Republican Rick Scott shake hands before their debate at Nova Southeastern University.

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Democrat Alex Sink and Republican Rick Scott shake hands before their debate at Nova Southeastern University.

Alex Sink and Rick Scott admire each other's commitments to their families. And that's about it.

The leading candidates for governor spent most of Wednesday's hourlong, televised debate bashing their rival's platform, experience and character in an effort to break the logjam that remains with less than two weeks to Election Day.

Sink, the state's chief financial officer, wore a red suit and portrayed Scott as untrustworthy and unprepared to lead the nation's fourth-largest state. "He should look at me," she admonished when he was asked to say something positive about her.

But Scott, a political rookie and former hospital executive who is mostly financing his own campaign, brushed past many of Sink's jabs and kept her on the defensive. He repeatedly sought to link Sink to President Barack Obama, called her a "failed fiscal watchdog" and never looked over at her during the debate.

The debate at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, broadcast on stations across Florida, was the second of three exchanges. With polls showing a tight race, Sink and Scott each hoped the debate would provide them the pivot they needed to surge ahead.

The most dramatic exchange came in the first 30 minutes, when Scott blasted Sink's proposals as unworkable. He said she proposes saving $700 million in the budget but wants to spend what he estimates is $12.5 billion — a sum she said he made up and he said would lead to a tax increase.

"Obama math doesn't work here," Scott said, continuing his attempt to connect Sink with to the agenda of the unpopular president. "So what tax will you increase?"

Sink shot back: "I don't know what Obama math is. What I do know is I was a 4.0 math major at Wake Forest University."

The audience erupted in laughter.

Scott, perhaps trying to soften his image among voters weary of constant attack ads, started off the debate by noting his wife and mother were in the audience and he complimented Sink for not taking public funds for her campaign.

But Sink wasted no time with pleasantries, calling Scott a "corporate raider" who "bought hospitals all over the country and shut many of them down."

The debate was sponsored by Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association. Panelists included Adam C. Smith of the St. Petersburg Times, Kelly Dunn of WPTV-5 and Antonio Fins of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and it was moderated by WFOR anchorman Antonio Mora.

Neither Sink nor Scott are smooth public speakers. Both looked down at their notes and stumbled at times. Each succeeded in weaving in their jabs against the other into answers to unrelated questions.

"My opponent is clearly an Obama liberal," said Scott, in a response to a question about Internet sales tax that quickly degenerated into personal backbiting.

The debate was a rerun of many of the same attacks both candidates have brandished against each other. Scott renewed his criticism of Sink for her tenure as president of NationsBank Florida, when her bank's parent company paid a $6.7 million fine for allowing an affiliated company to steer bank customers into high-risk securities — a practice Sink said she had no authority over.

Scott also continued his attacks against Sink for allowing felons to receive an insurance license — the same allegations he lobbed in television and newspapers ads — and said Sink presided over billions of losses in the state's pension fund.

Sink responded: "I take responsibility for all of them." As far as giving insurance licenses to felons, she said, "In every case our lawyers are doing what I expect … which is to follow the laws."

She accused Scott of trying to blame her for a "global financial collapse" and noted that despite the losses in the pension fund it has performed better than many other states during the crisis and is ranked one of the best in the nation.

She then cited the state pension fund's lawsuit against Scott for insider trading.

Scott responded that the insider trading suit was dismissed and that Sink failed to follow her own office's guidelines when she issued insurance licenses to felons.

Sink continued to blast Scott for failing to answer to questions surrounding his record as founder and chief of Columbia/HCA, the national hospital chain that paid $1.7 billion in federal fines for Medicare and Medicaid fraud after he left the company.

Asked directly whether he either knew about the fraud or was too distant a manager, Scott punted but didn't answer.

"I made sure patients were taken care of," he said. "I really could have done a better job to hire more internal and external auditors."

As Scott repeatedly tried to suggest that a Sink administration would raise taxes and claimed that her proposals would cost billions the state doesn't have, Sink fired back that he was trying to mislead voters.

"You have been throwing mud and negative advertising ever since the Republican primary," she said.

Both candidates were asked why they believed the other should not be governor.

"I don't think that leading a large hospital corporation that was charged with the largest Medicare fraud fine in the history of this country would rate him as being a highly successful CEO, when his board had to ask him to leave the company," Sink said. "I think there's an issue of trust here and character and integrity."

Sink then slammed her opponent for not meeting with newspaper editorial boards.

In response, Scott said: "What I've decided with my campaign is going right to voters. That's how I'm spending my time."

Scott derided Sink as unfit to be governor because she is a "Tallahassee insider" and "she supports everything Obama supports."

Sink did not attempt to distance herself from the president, or mention her differences in his policies but defended her record. She noted her time as former head of NationsBank and successor Bank of America's Florida operations where she "had 9,000 people working for me" and spoke of her childhood roots on a North Carolina farm.

"I'm still that girl who grew up on that family farm," she said. "The values I learned there were that the most important thing in life, Alex, is your character and integrity and being honest."

Asked if he thinks homosexuality is immoral, Scott wouldn't say. "What I believe is marriage is between a man and a woman ... I believe that children are raised in a more healthy environment if they are raised by a married couple."

Said Sink: "No, it's not (immoral)." She said adoptions by same-sex couples should be legal in Florida and decided by a judge who looks at the child's best interest.

On a few areas they agreed with the policy, but differed on the approach.

Sink was asked what she thought of Scott's proposal to drug test welfare recipients. Sink answered: "I don't think the State of Florida should be using taxpayer money to fund somebody's drug habit," she said. But she wanted to "know what the cost is before we implement a plan like this."

Both agree that the state-run Citizen's Property Insurance needs to shrink and that more private insurance companies should be encouraged to do business in Florida but both differ dramatically in how to approach it.

Scott believes insurers should be given more flexibility to offer insurance and face less regulation and blasted Sink for failing to improve the insurance market during her four years as chief financial officer.

Sink countered that Scott's plan was the equivalent to deregulation and that absent those checks insurers "try to get away with things all the time." She said his plan to eliminate the law that imposes penalties on insurers who act in bad faith, "would be an absolute disaster."

The candidates will debate one last time before the Nov. 2 election for an Oct. 25 debate sponsored by CNN and the St. Petersburg Times in Tampa.

Mud flies as Alex Sink and Rick Scott square off in governor's race debate 10/20/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 21, 2010 9:27am]
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