FORT WALTON BEACH — Rick Scott returned to the scene of one of his greatest triumphs Wednesday: the staunchly Republican Panhandle that played a important role in his winning election as Florida's next governor.
"This is our time," Scott told a crowd of enthusiastic supporters at a popular local restaurant. "We're going to focus every day on building jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs."
He told people to hold him accountable for all of his campaign promises, and seemed to anticipate more clearly the bruising political battles that await him in Tallahassee.
He urged them to call talk radio and write letters to the editor to counteract the "special interests" who will resist his changes, such as requiring public employees to pay a portion of their pensions.
"Otherwise, all the special interests are going to sit out there and try to complain when we try to fix the pension plan or make sure we don't raise taxes," Scott said. "They're all going to be out there fighting us."
Scott's breakfast stop at the quaint and very crowded Magnolia Grill kicked off a daylong, four-city swing dubbed the inaugural appreciation tour.
Every stop — Fort Walton Beach, Panama City, Jacksonville and Miami — was in a city friendly to Scott in November. But few places were friendlier than this first stop in Okaloosa County, with its huge military bases, white sandy beaches and an economy ravaged by the 1-2 punch of the recession and the gulf oil spill.
Scott won Okaloosa by a three-to-one margin over Democrat Alex Sink, further cementing the Panhandle as highly receptive to a Republican message of low taxes, leaner government and general disregard for President Barack Obama's policies.
About 200 people sipped coffee and had blueberry muffins before Scott arrived, then grabbed their cameras to be photographed with the new chief executive.
Elaine Tucker of Shalimar, the wife of a retired Air Force pilot, said she appreciated Scott's emphasis on Florida's military presence, and she likes the fact that Scott was a business executive.
"I'm glad to see a businessman, someone with a background other than just politics," Tucker said.
Jerry Melvin, a former state legislator from Destin, said he wants Scott to "remove" a lot of midlevel employees from the state bureaucracy, a view shared by Barbara Hall, chairwoman of the local Republican Party, who wants Scott to keep his promise to cut thousands of state jobs.
"It might be tough for some people," Hall said. " He's going to have to make some tough choices."
But Jim Anders, who works in the lumber and timber business in nearby Seagrove Beach, said he worries about Scott killing jobs in the state prison system, which is the economic lifeblood of many Panhandle communities.
"We really need that payroll," Anders said "That's not going to help the Panhandle."
Even in this politically active crowd, Scott remains something of an enigma.
"I don't know that much about him other than what I heard on the campaign trail," Fort Walton Beach Mayor Mike Anderson said.
Scott's inaugural chairman, Francis Rooney, the former United States ambassador to the Vatican, also was on hand, along with the state's new attorney general, Pam Bondi; Scott's wife, Ann; daughter Jordan; and son-in-law Jeremy.
"Where's mom?" a man in the crowd shouted, referring to 82-year-old Esther Scott, a Kansas City resident who was a popular fixture throughout the campaign and was featured in a TV ad touting "my son Rick."
"She'll be back Sunday," Scott said. "She said she has 'campaign withdrawal.' "
While flying to Jacksonville, Scott said he's asking business owners and executives to give him a list of regulations that interfere with their companies, then he's asking state agencies what the effect would be of eliminating them. But he said he hasn't begun identifying specific items he plans to eliminate.
"Every regulation makes it more difficult for someone to be in business," he said. "A friend of mine called me … and said, 'You've changed government already.' He said, 'One of these state agencies was in my office yesterday and they said their job was to help the state build jobs. They've never said that before.' "
Scott is scheduled to become Florida's 45th governor Tuesday at high noon.
Information from the Associated Press was included in this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850). 224-7263.