DESTIN — Standing in front of his idle charter boat, Capt. Scott Robson gave GOP hopeful Rick Scott a grim assessment of the oil ravaged economy in Florida's Panhandle.
"You look at all these boats on July 26," he said pointing down the dock to rows of leisure fishing boats at the HarborWalk Marina. "In the past everybody would be out fishing. This is prime (time)."
As they spoke, Scott omitted the fact he continues to leave the door open for offshore oil drilling — despite a shift in public opinion that prompted top Republican state lawmakers to abandon the idea.
After Scott had gone to his bus, a reporter told Robson of Scott's position, and the fisherman looked surprised.
"Oohh, I don't know with what's going on nowadays," he said. "At a time, I think we all did kind of support it. … I think everybody is a little 'wooohh, oops, wooohh, I don't know.' "
It made for an awkward moment as Scott completed the final segment of his six-day statewide bus tour.
"My belief is that we have to continue to look at offshore drilling but we've got to do it safely," he told a business roundtable in Panama City. "I think as a country and a state we've got to become as energy independent as we can."
Later, in an interview aboard his campaign bus, Scott clarified that it won't happen in the "foreseeable future."
"We are not going to drill now," he said. "It's not safe. It doesn't make any sense."
State law currently forbids drilling within 10 miles of the coast but state lawmakers have tried numerous times in recent years to lift the ban.
Scott said he supports President Barack Obama's moratorium on drilling in the Gulf until new safety measures are developed. But he said he opposes a constitutional ban on drilling in state waters. "Never is a long time," he said. "If we figure out some day that it's safe I think we ought to look at it."
Scott said he supports the development of alternative energy, but gave no details about what he would do as governor to boost the industry.
Asked if he believes in global warming, Scott said no. "I have not been convinced," he said.
Asked what it would take to persuade him, "Something more convincing than what I've read," said Scott. Asked what car he has, he said he drives a Lincoln MKS hybrid.
As he spoke, the bus drove west along U.S. 98, the main coastal thoroughfare for the white sand beaches that make this area a major tourist destination. But with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, crowds are smaller, businesses are going closing and the locals are hurting.
"It's been an emotional black eye over the Panhandle," said Republican state Rep. Jimmy Patronis, who attended a Scott event and owns a beachside restaurant in Panama City.
The oil issue is one of the most defining in the GOP primary for governor. Scott's rival Bill McCollum, the state's attorney general, opposes near-shore drilling.
In April, McCollum said as governor any effort to change state law to allow drilling would "face a veto on my desk."
"I know it's a revenue producer, but that's not a good enough reason," he said.
McCollum said he does not support Obama's moratorium. But his stance on a constitution ban is less clear. His campaign said he opposes the tougher prohibition, but McCollum said a week earlier he would have voted for it.
His campaign attacked Scott by suggesting he supports offshore drilling claiming he did so because it helps his wallet. Scott owns $20 million worth of stock in Drives LLC, a company certified by the American Petroleum Institute for manufacturing chains and augers used in oil production and other industries.
Scott took a direct swipe at McCollum Monday, saying he opposed the $75 million cap on liability for oil spills approved by Congress in 1990. McCollum, then a Central Florida congressman, voted for the bill.
"When companies don't have a downside risk it creates an incentive to take a risk that you wouldn't normally take," he said.
By and large, Scott avoided the topic of the oil spill until confronted with the stark situation on the Destin docks.
The day before, he took a boat tour with two charter fishermen to look at the oyster beds in Apalachicola Bay, where the oil spill was on the mind of fisherman Bruce Rotella, a pony-tailed sun-wrinkled man who called it a "monster."
But in the 20-minute boat ride, Scott didn't ask about oil once.