TAMPA — Rick Scott "ripped off taxpayers." Bill McCollum is a "desperate career politician."
The only live TV debate between the Republican candidates for governor was a bruising affair Thursday night, with each man repeatedly leveling hard verbal punches in a nasty confrontation that was largely an hour-long version of their 30-second TV ads.
Facing off in the Tampa studios of WTVT-Fox 13, each man tried mightily to put a positive spin on his biggest vulnerability: the $1.7 billion Medicare fraud that took place on Scott's watch at Columbia/HCA Corp. and McCollum's life as a career politician who voted to raise taxes and fees while serving in Congress.
Scott said he took "responsibility" for the fraud but stopped short of implicating himself.
"I've leveled with the voters from Day One," Scott said. "We could have done things better. When you're in business you learn lessons. … We should have had more verification. That's a lesson I've learned and it's a lesson I'll bring to the table."
McCollum strongly defended his lengthy political career, something that has emerged as a liability in an election season when voters seem disenchanted with politics as usual.
"Bill McCollum's not a career politician. He's a career public servant," McCollum said, quoting an endorsement of his candidacy from the Naples Daily News, Scott's hometown newspaper.
McCollum said he was "proud of my record of public service," and that voters aren't willing to turn the reins of government over to a novice: "They know that this state needs leadership, somebody who understands Florida and gets things done," he said.
Midway through the debate, moderator John Wilson of WTVT allowed each man to speak to the other, and the level of animosity escalated — over taxes.
After McCollum seized the initiative early on, he was suddenly forced on the defensive by Scott, who accused himof voting to raise taxes and fees 42 times during his two decades in Congress.
"The only time that I voted for a tax increase when I was in Congress was Ronald Reagan's economic plan," McCollum said. "It's the one vote I regret that I ever took."
"You voted for fee increases," Scott said.
"Of course I voted for fee increases," McCollum said.
"Oh, gosh, that doesn't impact anybody?" Scott said sarcastically, "like police officers that need to get a job. They're struggling to get a job. You just raised their fees another $50."
"The way you're acting tonight is not responsible. Occasionally, you have to vote for a user fee," McCollum said.
"That's a tax. That impacts people," Scott said.
The level of hostility reflected the high stakes, with less than three weeks before Republicans choose a nominee in the Aug. 24 primary to take on Democrat Alex Sink and independent Lawton "Bud" Chiles in November.
McCollum repeatedly questioned Scott's credibility, citing Medicare fraud at Columbia/HCA.
"How could you have missed such an abuse?" he asked Scott.
"We could have done things better," Scott said, saying others were to blame and that he was never charged or fined. "When you're in business, you learn lessons and the business lesson is: Trust but verify … We should have had more verification."
McCollum also repeatedly criticized Scott's lack of political experience and his lavishly-funded campaign for governor, unprecedented in Florida history.
"I think it's obscene, what he's running on — $40-, $50-million, trying to buy the governor's office," McCollum said. "I don't think the governor's office of Florida should be for sale."
"What you do know is that no one will own me," Scott said. "I've put up my money because I believe in this state. I've put up more money than probably anybody in history's put up to try to turn this state around. So nobody, no special interest will ever be able to persuade me to do something."
He also bashed McCollum for taking $1.7 million in taxpayer money to underwrite his campaign.
McCollum was more pugnacious throughout, calling Scott "ignorant" about state immigration laws and accusing Scott of "plagiarizing" his policy ideas.
"The truth is, I know what I'm doing and you don't know what you're doing," McCollum said. "Your only record is what you tell in your slick ads."
Scott repeatedly pointed out he created jobs and businesses on his own, embodied the American dream and would fix the economy. He said McCollum stood by while the Legislature increased the size of the budget and hurt the state's business climate. Scott said McCollum flip-flopped on immigration and "pandered."
"You're driving business out of the state," Scott said.
McCollum cited a Times/Herald report Thursday that showed how Scott's current company, Solantic, a Jacksonville-based network of walk-in health centers, settled a lawsuit in which Scott gave a deposition six days before he entered the race. The deposition is secret because of a settlement of the lawsuit, which alleged that Solantic broke state law by misusing a doctor's license.
"Solantic is a great company. The case you brought up is a disgruntled employee," Scott said.
Three times during the debate, McCollum trotted out the individuals and groups who have endorsed his candidacy, from Jeb Bush to Mitt Romney to Newt Gingrich to the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
Both men touted their job creation plans. McCollum wants to cut the corporate income tax from 5.5 percent to 4.5 percent and a 10-year break from the tax for firms that relocate to Florida. Scott pointed to his record of growing jobs at Columbia/HCA and vowed to drastically cut property taxes, business taxes and government regulations.
McCollum said he had "no role to play whatsoever" in the tangle of negotiations that led to Jim Greer's ouster as chairman of the Republican Party of Florida several months ago.
Fittingly, just before the live debate began, Scott's newest TV ad appeared, blasting McCollum for voting for tax increases in Congress. "Career politician Bill McCollum. Too taxing," the ad concluded.
After the debate, only McCollum faced reporters, voicing disappointment that the hour was devoid of talk of education, health care or the environment. Scott disappeared. "He won," Scott spokeswoman Jen Baker said. "He didn't need to come in here."
New public opinion polls show the race tightening. A new Mason-Dixon poll commissioned by Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association shows Scott leading McCollum, 37 percent to 31 percent, with 29 percent undecided. Scott refuses to take part in an Aug. 11 debate sponsored by the two groups.
Pollster Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, said Hispanic Republicans favor McCollum over Scott by a 3-1 margin, and may be turned off by Scott's use of immigration as a wedge issue. The poll of 625 likely Republican primary voters was conducted Aug. 2-4 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Thursday night's debate was also broadcast on a delayed basis on two other Fox outlets, WOFL-Channel 35 in Orlando and WOGX-Channel 51 in Gainesville.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.