TAMPA — Rick Scott and Alex Sink displayed contempt for each other in their final debate Monday and gave a nationwide TV audience a glimpse of the mounting tension in the close race for governor.
Seated side-by-side in a college theater, both candidates showed flashes of anger as they attacked each other over business records, campaign promises and TV ads. Three times Scott scolded Sink for smiling or laughing as he criticized her.
"What are you smiling about? You don't care about seniors? Is that the deal?" Scott said, accusing Sink's former bank of ripping off customers.
Sink sometimes showed impatience with Scott and the moderators. In an exchange with Scott over NationsBank selling questionable securities, Sink snapped at Scott: "You can't lecture me about fraud."
The reference was to the record $1.7 billion in Medicare fraud fines paid by Scott's former hospital company, Columbia/HCA.
The up close and personal one-hour debate at the University of South Florida was shown live on CNN's John King USA and was sponsored by the cable network and the St. Petersburg Times with King and Times political editor Adam C. Smith as questioners.
The candidates sipped water from red mugs emblazoned with the CNN logo, and by the time they shook hands at the end of the debate, the cameras had cut away.
Between heated exchanges, Sink, 62, the Democratic chief financial officer of Florida, and Scott, 57, a Republican former health care executive, offered voters many policy disagreements.
On immigration, Scott said he would support a law similar to Arizona's that would allow police to check IDs of suspected illegal immigrants. Sink opposes the Arizona law and supports stiffer fines on businesses that knowingly hire undocumented workers.
On growth management, Sink said Florida needs a Department of Community Affairs as a watchdog over local growth decisions. Scott called the agency a "jobs killer" and said its usefulness needs to be reviewed.
On taxes, Scott repeatedly said Sink would raise taxes to fulfill her campaign promises. "You are going to increase the pay for state workers, okay? How are you going to pay for that?"
"Excuse me, you are reinventing history," Sink said. "I am not raising taxes."
Asked to pledge that she won't raise taxes, Sink said: "There is nothing in my plans that says, 'raising taxes.' " She said she would "stimulate the economy" with tax cuts for companies that hire new workers.
Scott called Sink "a failed fiscal watchdog," noting the excesses in a new courthouse in Tallahassee. Sink said it was Scott's supporters — his fellow Republicans — who have raised taxes and fees by $2-billion and failed to improve the state's economic climate.
Scott said Sink has no way to pay for a new high-speed rail system between Tampa and Orlando.
"There's nothing you want to cut," Scott said. "You just want the federal government to pay for it."
Scott supports the rail system if the federal government paid for it all up front, and he wants a feasibility study.
In an echo of his TV ads, Scott repeatedly tied Sink to President Barack Obama, calling her an "Obama liberal," prompting Sink to reply that "you cannot put that label on me" and noting she was a "fiscal conservative" who supports extending the Bush-era tax cuts.
When Sink touted the fact that 16 Florida newspapers support her candidacy and none favor Scott, he said: "Absolutely. Most of them endorsed Barack Obama. You're an Obama liberal."
Sink mocked Scott's claim that he "followed the rules" in becoming a successful business executive.
"He certainly was not following the rules when he led a company that was convicted of 14 felonies because they were engaged in Medicare fraud," Sink said. "He's just somebody that we can't trust, because he can't follow the rules."
Moderator King pressed Scott over his evasive answers in a 1997 deposition in a health care lawsuit and Scott's refusal to release a deposition he gave six days before he announced for governor.
"It was a legal dispute. It was settled. It has nothing to do with running for governor," Scott said.
Asked if she had any regrets in her life, Sink said she did not think about the past. Scott said he would have had more than two children — prompting applause from the studio audience.
Both candidates flubbed a question about the minimum wage in Florida: They said it was $7.55 an hour; it's $7.25.
Sink violated a debate agreement not to use notes when a makeup artist, during a commercial break, showed her a phone with a message coaching her on an answer. Sink later fired the aide who sent the message.
Polls show the race seesawing back and forth. The latest poll by Zogby International, for the Naples Daily News, showed Sink with a lead of 4 percentage points, 43 percent to 39 percent. A statewide survey by Ipsos Public Affairs for the St. Petersburg Times, Miami Herald, Bay News 9 and Central Florida News 13 released on Friday showed Scott leading, 44 to 41 percent.
Scott, of Naples, has run one of the most unusual campaigns in the history of Florida politics. A first-time candidate running in a year when voters are upset with career politicians, he has spent more than $60-million of a fortune he earned as a health care executive.
But that accomplishment has also been Scott's greatest problem, as the Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. paid $1.7-billion for Medicare fraud, prompting Scott's resignation and tarnishing his bid to lead the nation's fourth-largest state.
Immediately after the debate, Scott and his wife, Annette, left for a six-day statewide bus tour that opens this morning in New Port Richey.
Sink, of Thonotosassa, is trying to break the Republicans' 12-year grip on the Governor's Mansion in a midterm election cycle in which Democrats nationally are fighting an uphill battle. Republicans are expected to make substantial gains in Congress, in part because of the unpopularity of Obama's policies.
Herald political writer Beth Reinhard contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com.
Fact-checking the debate
Scott's claim that Sink's plans include $12.5 billion in new spending is False, 4A, with more at PolitiFact.com
Know your candidates
To stay up to date on Florida candidates and ballot issues, go to tampabay.com/kyc2010.
Sink made her strongest case yet to be Florida's governor. 8A