ORLANDO — In their first joint appearance on the campaign trail Friday, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink challenged Republican Rick Scott to five statewide televised debates and chastised him for a running an overwhelmingly negative primary.
"I didn't hear anything about how we're going to improve our economy, or get people back to work, or what we're going to do to improve our education system," Sink said of the one hourlong debate she saw between Scott and his chief primary election rival, Attorney General Bill McCollum.
"What you will hear from me, is you will hear the things Floridians care about, which is discussing the issues and that are important in our state," she said. "It is important to understand what the choices are but we ought to be able to call out our differences without calling each other names."
But the conference of the politically influential Florida Association of Realtors highlighted how underestimated and unpredictable Scott may be as a candidate.
The controversial former chief of Columbia/HCA hospital chain drew louder applause than Sink in his speech emphasizing deep cuts in government spending and government regulations, and his reception room drew more people than the Democratic chief financial officer did at hers.
"We were shocked at how good Rick Scott was. The others never really told us what they were going to do," said Kathy Brandon, a Republican Realtor from St. Lucie County.
Her friend Christina Fischer had expected to lead a "Republicans for Alex Sink" effort after McCollum lost the nomination, but now she's taking a serious look at Scott.
"He opened my eyes. His business experience is seriously needed," she said.
Scott, a mega-rich Naples businessman who spent at least $50 million of his own money to shock the GOP establishment and beat McCollum, refused to participate in any statewide televised debate during the primary and was noncommittal about what he would do with Sink.
"I clearly believe we ought to debate," said Scott.
Talking to the enthusiastic crowd, Scott said as governor he would eliminate corporate taxes, push down property taxes by about 20 percent and "get rid of every regulation we can."
"We are going to be the state that has fair regulation and has the lowest taxes you can possibly have so that everyone will want to do business here," he said to cheers.
Not everyone was impressed.
"Sure he's going to do that — until he finds out as governor that he just can't do all that," scoffed Thomas Sponaugle, a Republican Venice Realtor who expects to vote for Sink now that Scott is the nominee. "He had a good reception, but I don't think there's any real substance there."
Scott was the biggest unknown at a Realtors' candidate forum that drew every major statewide candidate: Sink and Scott for governor; and independent Charlie Crist, Republican Marco Rubio, and Democrat Kendrick Meek for the Senate.
"I'm running against two good people. I have no complaint about them, but they're tied to their party. I'm not. I'm a free agent — a free agent for Florida," said Crist, who has had a close allegiance with Florida Realtors.
Still, the crowd of roughly 500 cheered Rubio louder than Crist.
None of the candidates appeared at the same time or took questions.
"If we stay on the road we are on right now, this extraordinary country of ours will be diminished, and that's what this election is about," Rubio said.
Meek offered a rambling speech about his middle-class upbringing and track record as a fighter.
Adam Smith can be reached at email@example.com.