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Bus tour draws voters hoping to see beyond the TV image of Rick Scott

Rick Scott greets young supporters in Tallahassee on Sunday during a luncheon stop on his statewide campaign bus caravan, which began Wednesday and ends today.

Associated Press

Rick Scott greets young supporters in Tallahassee on Sunday during a luncheon stop on his statewide campaign bus caravan, which began Wednesday and ends today.

THE VILLAGES — Shortly before Jim Levitt left his home in this Central Florida retirement community for a Rick Scott campaign event, the candidate appeared in his living room.

On television.

That's how most Florida voters have come to know Scott, the Republican front-runner for governor who has spent millions of his own money deluging the state with television advertising and leapfrogging in the polls over the GOP establishment candidate, Attorney General Bill McCollum.

Scott's unprecedented media blitz heightened the curiosity surrounding his statewide bus tour that began Wednesday and ends today, offering a sliver of voters from Miami to Pensacola a chance to compare the slender man in a suit with his carefully orchestrated small-screen image.

"I just wanted to see the person and get a feel for what he's all about," said Levitt, 72, who described his impression of Scott as "very favorable."

On the campaign trail, Scott doesn't reveal much more than what voters see in his 30-second spots.

He's soft-spoken, keeps his remarks brief and sticks to talking points that go like this: I came from humble beginnings. My dad drove a truck. I bought a small doughnut shop when I was 21 years old. I ran a health care company with 285,000 employees. I know how to create jobs because I've done it before.

"If we keep electing the same politicians who think the same way, we're going to get the same results," he told the crowd at the Villages.

That overly familiar message is enough for many recession-weary voters, even when it comes from a Naples corporate executive who estimates his net worth at $218 million and resigned from his hospital chain in 1997 when it was accused of ripping off taxpayers.

"These career politicians are like puppets," said Republican activist Dotty Vazquez, who met Scott during the first day of his bus tour in Miami. "I think he understands us. … He looks nice. I like him."

"From what I've seen, he has a purpose," said Reinaldo Valdes, a public relations director who enjoyed the pastelitos (pastries) provided by the Scott campaign at Versailles restaurant in Miami. "His purpose is to create jobs, and he has demonstrated that in his executive positions."

Scott smiles nonstop but doesn't get excited. He shakes hands warmly but doesn't engage in much conversation. He only gets really animated when talking about the health care industry where he made his career, and then he slips into corporate jargon like ''risk management."

Even in the Florida heat, Scott barely sweats.

"I've never done this before!'' said a wide-eyed Scott, waving to drivers from a Miami street corner.

Scott brought his wife of 38 years, his spry 81-year-old mother and one of his two grown daughters on the bus trip, but declined to talk about his dad, who died four years ago. "Too emotional," he said.

Asked about what it's like to run for office for the first time, he said: "It's fun."

His campaign is tightly run. When two reporters sidled up for a few minutes of chit-chat while Scott was eating lunch, a staffer asked them to leave him alone. Another staffer blew up at a local television reporter who asked his mother about the McCollum camp's attacks on her son's role in the Medicaid fraud at his former hospital chain, Columbia/HCA.

"The only thing we know about him is what he's wanted us to know, so I'm eager to see what he's like for real," said Joni Weist, a Sarasota Republican Club leader who said she left unsatisfied after hearing him speak.

"I had to keep asking him follow-up questions regarding his plan to attract businesses to Florida," said Ninoska Pérez Castellón, a host on a Radio Mambi show in Miami who spoke with Scott in Miami. "He's very much like what he projects on television, but in this particular election, I think people need more than an image and a promise because of the economic situation. He gives very standard answers, and voters are going to want more from him and all of the candidates."

Scott on offshore oil drilling: "We have to continue to look at it."

On his business background: "I know what it's like to balance a budget."

On social issues: "Family values are very important to me. I'm a Christian. I am pro-life and pro-family."

The few questions he fields from voters at some events offer the only unscripted moments of his campaign.

At a Clearwater diner, Scott agreed with a high school teacher in supporting a bill vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist that would have overhauled teacher tenure. Asked for his education plan, Scott said he would release one soon but cautioned what would work in Clearwater won't work elsewhere.

"And also a school's color," Scott said. "If you're 70 percent African-American, you are going to deal with different issues."

The teacher agreed, but the McCollum campaign seized on the remarks, calling them ''concerning."

Robert Phillips, a former corporate executive, asked Scott about the $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud paid by his former company, Columbia/HCA. Scott gave his stock response in which he takes responsibility and says he wished he had more auditors.

"All he's told us is trust him," said Phillips, who remains undecided about the race. "That's not enough."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com. Beth Reinhard can be reached at breinhard@miamiherald.com.

Bus tour draws voters hoping to see beyond the TV image of Rick Scott 07/25/10 [Last modified: Monday, July 26, 2010 1:08pm]

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