MIAMI — The war of words playing out over the airwaves between Republican Rick Scott and Democrat Alex Sink spilled into the Doral studios of Univisión Friday as the two major candidates for Florida governor faced off in their first televised debate.
Echoing their ubiquitous TV ads, a feisty Sink, in her strongest jabs yet against Scott, tried to paint her opponent as a crook and a liar for heading a hospital chain that was slapped with a record $1.7 billion in federal fines for Medicare fraud. An unflappable Scott stuck to his mantra of job creation and portrayed Sink, the state's chief financial officer, as an ineffective Tallahassee insider.
Sink went on the offensive more often than her opponent during the hourlong debate, an effort to blunt the effects of Scott's barrage of negative ads against her in the race.
Polls show a tight race.
The latest survey, a Mason-Dixon Polling & Research poll released Friday, showed Sink with a narrowing lead of 4 percentage points over Scott, 44-40. Though she is still better liked than Scott, the number of voters who view Sink negatively reached double digits, a sign that her GOP rival's attacks are resonating with some voters.
The Univisión standoff was an important early test for the candidates, who have launched aggressive new attack ads against each other in the past week. The debate is likely to be seen by few in Florida because it was broadcast in Spanish at 11 p.m. Friday night. It can be seen in English and Spanish over the Internet by visiting www.Univision23.com.
The candidates are scheduled to face off two more times, but not before early voting begins Oct. 18.
To keep Scott from getting an edge before then, Sink drew attention Friday to his time as head of the Columbia/HCA hospital chain, an experience Scott brought up as a plus.
"I have a seven-step plan to create 700,000 jobs," Scott said. "My whole background is in business. You run the state like you run your business, like you run your household."
"I don't think the people of Florida want you to run the state of Florida the way that you ran your business," Sink retorted.
Later she mocked Scott's 7-7-7 economic plan, saying it was a more apt description of his short seven years as a Florida resident, the 75 times he pleaded the Fifth Amendment in a lawsuit and the $70 million she expects him to spend in his quest to become governor.
Scott, who called the civil lawsuit against his former company a fishing expedition, took shots at Sink for voting for state investments that lost billions and suggesting she has fraud issues because NationsBank, where she once worked, was fined and sued for selling bogus securities.
"She calls herself the fiscal watchdog," Scott said. "She won't take responsibility for anything."
The two rivals often danced around questions, sticking to general terms and talking points to try to define themselves as problem solvers ready to take on the state's challenges. Scott cast himself as an outsider with real-world experience, and Sink stressed that her knowledge of how government works would require no on-the-job training.
Scott, who burst onto the political scene as a proponent of an Arizona-style law against illegal immigration, did not back away from that position Friday. However, since the August primary, he has shied away from raising the issue of immigration.
Speaking on the nation's largest Spanish-language television network, and in an appeal to Hispanics who make up about 13 percent of the Florida electorate, Scott did not tout the Arizona law, instead saying he is against any racial profiling.
"We want legal immigration. We want to create barriers to illegal immigration," said Scott, who advocates for E-verify, a system for employers to verify the immigration status of prospective workers. He focused on his trajectory from humble beginnings as the son of a trucker growing up in public housing to successful businessman.
"The reason you were able to walk out of that company with $300 million and live that American dream is because you were cheating," replied Sink, who opposes an Arizona-like law but backs stiffer penalties for employees who knowingly hire undocumented workers.
Scott called out Sink for supporting the federal health care overhaul: "She's an Obama liberal," he said.
Sink countered with: "This is really a sad situation. Do you understand how many Floridians have jobs and no health insurance? Millions. Millions. You are out of touch with reality."
Unlike Sink, Scott did not face the press after the debate, sending former Gov. Jeb Bush, Miami U.S. Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart and former GOP state chairman Al Cardenas — and later state Rep. Jennifer Carroll, his running mate — as surrogates.
Asked why he was taking questions instead of Scott, Bush said, "I don't know."
Times/Herald staff writers Sergio R. Bustos and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.