TALLAHASSEE — The battle lines in the GOP primary for governor became sharper Thursday as the candidates made the contest official and escalated a heated race with a new round of nasty attacks.
Rick Scott, a wealthy but untested Naples businessman, made his first major public appearance to describe "the message we're selling," and accused rival Bill McCollum of breaking the law in hiding his connection to a shadowy political group.
"I believe that we will win because our message is the message Floridians want," Scott said, ticking off conservative planks such as limited government and personal freedom as he spoke to an overflow crowd of 250 people at Tallahassee Tiger Bay Club lunch.
McCollum, who is lagging in the polls, went on the attack, telling reporters his rival has a "suspicious background" that makes him unfit to hold office. The Republican attorney general's supporters boldly suggested Scott personally profited from abortions as the CEO of a major hospital chain.
"I'd like to believe that people at the end of the day are going to elect somebody that has been tested," McCollum said, swiping at Scott, who has never run for elective office. "They don't need a rookie up here running this place who doesn't know what Tallahassee is and what state government is really all about."
Asked if he is misjudging an electorate that would rather have a fresh face than a politician with lengthy service like himself, McCollum said Scott needs to know a lot more about Florida.
Later, Scott played into his opponent's hands when he said, "Probably by the end I will know every (Florida) county's name."
The maneuvering is a glimpse of the high-stakes, high-priced television advertising war to come in the 10 weeks before the Aug. 24 primary. Scott has already spent $15 million on statewide advertising and two political groups with ties to McCollum have spent nearly $2.5 million to attack his rival — particularly for his top role at Columbia/HCA amid a federal investigation that resulted in a record $1.7 billion fine for Medicare and Medicaid fraud.
Scott said he plans to respond the same way by creating his own separate political committee that will allow him to raise unlimited amounts of money.
The race entered its official phase as Scott, 57, and McCollum, 65, filed the necessary paperwork to run for office. Scott still needs to submit a financial disclosure form, which is expected by today's noon deadline.
The ritual made for good theater as Scott faced his toughest questions yet from a throng of more than a dozen reporters. He looked shell-shocked at the sight of a half-dozen TV cameras and tried to escape before an aide made him answer questions for 10 minutes.
Scott said he will bring conservative principles to state budgeting, including a review of state agencies and programs — which is already done annually. Without offering specifics about which programs he thinks are inefficient, Scott said he would create "outcome measurements" for each program and measure their performance.
Sweating in the TV lights, Scott dodged other questions about McCollum's attacks and acknowledged knowing little about some top state issues, such as this year's amendment to abolish the public campaign financing system.
"You guys have a lot of questions," Scott said, turning to staffer for assistance. "This is hard."
He left for the Tiger Bay speech moments before McCollum visited the Division of Elections to make his bid official. McCollum brought a small entourage that included future House Speaker Dean Cannon, former Rep. Dennis Baxley and Eugene Wilkinson, a tea party leader, all of whom vouched for McCollum's conservative credentials.
McCollum distanced himself from the nebulous political groups attacking Scott, but he suggested voters need to hear it.
Scott, who runs a private investment firm, is facing criticism for investing in Emida Technologies, a business that targets the Hispanic remittances market. McCollum said it makes Scott — who is pushing a tougher Arizona-styled immigration law — look like a hypocrite because the practice encourages illegal immigration, even though he offered no proof that the company served this population.
Responding to the attacks for the first time, Scott said money managers at his firm, Richard L. Scott Investments, make the investments and he flatly rejected McCollum's insinuation. "Does a grocery store who sells food to people fuel illegal immigration?" Scott asked rhetorically in an interview later in the day. "The company has a legitimate service. What they do is absolutely legal."
Scott's campaign has criticized McCollum, who was initially hesitant about the Arizona law, for lobbying on behalf of banks and mortgage companies that targeted illegal immigrants.
As for the suggestion he profited from abortions, Scott called McCollum hypocritical. "He questions my commitment and he takes contributions from Planned Parenthood lobbyists and he supports embryonic stem cell research, give me a break," he said.
McCollum also stretched his attacks to assert that the millions Scott is spending on his TV ads is "taxpayer money essentially," because Scott's hospital chain profited from overbilling the federal government for health services.
Scott called it "a desperate politician saying things that don't make any sense."
"Bill McCollum doesn't want to talk about any issues," he added later. "All he does is attack me."
Times/Herald staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.