TAMPA — Democratic candidate for governor Alex Sink didn't have to look far to find a credible bulldog to raise sharp questions about Republican Rick Scott's extensive legal and business baggage. Her running mate, Rod Smith, was a longtime prosecutor who knows how to play rough in politics.
But Sink, who on Monday unveiled a two-minute ad attacking Scott's business record, has kept Smith in the background. The low profile for Smith, a charismatic speaker and former leader in the state Senate, has been noted by Democratic activists statewide. Sink hasn't even added his name to campaign signs or stickers, an apparent cost-saving measure as they face a candidate who already has spent about $55 million.
"Anyone notice that lt. governor candidate Rod Smith has disappeared off the radar," Michael Hussey of Tampa's Pushing Rope blog tweeted over the weekend.
Miami Democratic consultant Derek Newton joked that Smith must be in the witness protection program. "I was just thinking about that the other day. I haven't seen any sign of him here or heard anything," he said.
While Republican lieutenant governor candidate Jennifer Carroll is showing before the cameras in major cities, Smith is more likely to show up in weekly newspapers published in North Florida communities that often favor Republicans, rural counties such as Levy, Gilchrist, Okeechobee and Dixie.
"I can tell you I am very busy," Smith, a former Gainesville area prosecutor, said in a phone interview Monday. "We are doing what Democrats haven't done so much in recent years — and that's campaign everywhere in Florida. I feel very good about how we're doing in some of these areas Democrats don't always do well."
After a combative Univision debate between Scott and Sink in Miami on Friday, Carroll walked into the spin room with former Gov. Jeb Bush to tout her partner's performance to reporters. Smith was busy campaigning 400 miles away at the Brown Lantern restaurant in Live Oak.
Smith, 60, offered a number of advantages as a running mate, including his strength in North Florida, his money-raising connections and his long-standing ties to law enforcement. He's happy to challenge Scott's record and character, he said, but said it's more effective to have ads featuring prosecutors and officers saying Scott can't be trusted.
On Monday, Sink showed off a two-minute documentary-style TV ad that will debut Wednesday during the 6 p.m. newscasts on Tampa Bay area stations.
"Multimillionaire Rick Scott's massive hospital chain was built on cutting corners and outright fraud," says a narrator, referring to the $1.7 billion in fines Scott's former company, Columbia/HCA, paid for Medicare fraud.
It's unclear where else or how often the spot might run, or whether it was aimed mostly at generating free publicity.
"It takes more than a 30-second ad to detail my opponent's long record of unethical business practices and even fraud investigations and criminal investigations. … This is tough, but it's tough because it's full of facts. It's nothing more than a summary of my opponent's background," Sink said in Tampa, joined by two retired Tampa police officers active with the Police Benevolent Association that supports Sink.
Scott held his own law enforcement news conference in Orlando. Standing in front of a "Law Enforcement Trusts Rick Scott" banner, he announced the endorsements of 11 sheriffs, including Jim Coats of Pinellas and Bob White of Pasco.
"The first and best economic development dollar spent is safe communities, safe schools and safe streets. And if we don't have that, it's very difficult for our state to prosper. So we're standing with Rick Scott today," White said.
Smith, who was state attorney in the Gainesville area and ran for governor in 2006, said Sink has been receptive to his ideas, and that they will make a good team in Tallahassee. Given all the controversy in Scott's background, he said the only reason the race is close is because Scott is spending so much money.
Said Smith, quoting a friend: "Somebody who spends $60 million for a $185,000 job is not going to fix the economy."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.