ST. PETERSBURG — Down now even in his own polls, Bill McCollum launched attack after attack against primary rival Rick Scott on Tuesday, hoping something — anything — can convince Republican voters that the TV image of Scott won't be what Floridians get as governor.
Among a volley of accusations at two separate Pinellas County events, McCollum said Scott plagiarized from McCollum's economic and jobs plan and is peddling an unrealistic and potentially devastating plan to cut the state Department of Corrections by almost 40 percent, or $1 billion. He also continued to pound Scott over his time as CEO of Columbia/HCA, saying Scott profited hundreds of millions of dollars by defrauding taxpayers through Medicare and Medicaid.
A perplexed and more feisty McCollum, Florida's attorney general, told members of the St. Petersburg Times editorial board he can't see how someone like Scott, with his lack of experience and personal baggage, is closing in on the Republican nomination.
"It's difficult for me to conceptualize a fellow who's got the background he's got with Columbia/HCA becoming the governor of Florida," McCollum said.
Later, to members of the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, McCollum said he didn't know if he could endorse Scott should McCollum lose the GOP primary on Aug. 24.
"You know me, you don't know him," McCollum said to about 100 members of the club over a ringing bell that signaled his time to speak was up. "Peel back the onion, Rick Scott has flaws. He has character flaws. You know my record."
The attacks, which also included allegations that Scott is dodging a statewide TV debate while continuing to pump millions of dollars into misleading advertising, emphasize just how far McCollum has fallen in three months.
The presumptive nominee as late as May, McCollum now finds himself trailing Scott, a multimillionaire who is self-financing a tea party-inspired, antigovernment, anti-incumbent message. McCollum's own internal poll, leaked to Politico on Tuesday, has him behind by 6 percentage points, 37-31, with 32 percent of voters undecided. An earlier McCollum internal poll showed the candidates tied at 35 percent.
McCollum groused Tuesday that he is unable to compete with Scott's near 24/7 exposure on television. Scott already has spent at least $26 million on television between his campaign and a political action group he's funding called Let's Get To Work. McCollum and the political action groups he's supporting have spent about $8 million. Scott is using political action groups as a loophole to prevent McCollum from tapping additional public financing.
Scott campaign spokesman Jennifer Baker brushed off McCollum's accusations and complaining as tactics of a desperate career politician close to losing his third statewide campaign.
On the jobs plans, McCollum claims that Scott stole McCollum's ideas but in the same breath says Scott's plan is unworkable, Baker said.
Scott says his plan will create about 700,000 private sector jobs over seven years, largely through the elimination of the corporate income tax and massive government spending cuts.
The plan, called the "7-7-7" plan, includes reducing prisoner costs by $1 billion by making inmates grow prison food, lowering prisoners health care costs and reducing the salaries of corrections staff.
McCollum calls the cuts "totally unrealistic" given that the entire Department of Corrections budget is just over $2.4 billion. The Scott campaign calls it the response of a career politician.
McCollum's campaign, meanwhile, estimates its plan would create 500,000 jobs over six years through lowering, but not eliminating, the corporate income tax, and by freezing local property taxes.
Both plans seek to reduce regulatory boundaries and would make the governor's office more involved in attracting high-tech and high-paying business jobs to Florida.
McCollum and Scott have regionally televised debates scheduled Monday in Miami and Aug. 5 in Tampa ahead of the primary. McCollum has agreed to a third debate, broadcast statewide, but Scott has not. The Scott campaign said it wants the third debate to be held in North Florida, likely Jacksonville, and include a studio audience.
Aaron Sharockman can be reached at email@example.com.