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Can Rick Scott sell himself to voters?

To hear Rick Scott tell it, he has sold just about everything, from TV Guide to newspapers to gooey, glazed doughnuts.

What Rick Scott is selling now is Rick Scott.

If this super-rich Republican businessman from Naples (now there's a demographic for you) can get himself elected governor, it will be the biggest sales job in the history of Florida politics.

If Scott pulls this off, he deserves a handsome bonus. But he has a long, long way to go if he's going to close this sale, and standing in his way at the moment is Bill McCollum.

The attorney general and former 10-term U.S. representative — a career politician who likes to call himself a career public servant — calls Scott "suspicious" and "flawed." McCollum is trying to drag down Scott by repeatedly emphasizing the massive Medicare fraud scheme that occurred when Scott was chief executive of the Columbia/HCA hospital corporation.

The firm paid $1.7 billion in fines to the government. Scott lost his job but was not charged with wrongdoing.

"My first deal, I borrowed $61 million. Thank God it worked, or I would have been doing something else," Scott said Thursday, sketching out his biography at a sold-out meeting of Tallahassee's Tiger Bay Club. He has a way of making $61 million sound like 61 cents.

Scott served on a destroyer escort in the Navy. He practiced law. He opened walk-in health clinics. He started a health care cable access channel with Rupert Murdoch. And, of course, he ran Columbia/HCA, which grew exponentially under his leadership but was his undoing, though it explains his bottom-line net worth of $217 million that he reported Friday.

"Surround yourself with really smart people," Scott told the respectful and largely Democratic Tiger Bay crowd, describing his management approach. "Set specific goals, set measurements, then measure the living daylights out of everything, and hold people accountable and don't run out of money."

Scott is packaging himself as a fresh face, an outsider, a novelty that Floridians have never seen before. But listen closely, and the Rick Scott of 2010 sounds a lot like the Jeb Bush of 1998.

Make no mistake: Bush was much more substantive, and he did have limited government experience as state commerce secretary before he entered politics.

In his Tiger Bay appearance, Scott played up the CEO profile, talking about growing private sector jobs, increasing accountability, improving efficiency and generally running state government like a business.

Scott promises "big changes" as governor. Jeb Bush had "big, hairy audacious goals." Scott wants to cut taxes. Bush oversaw the biggest tax cuts in state history. Scott wants to shrink the size of government. Bush did, too, and found out it's a lot harder to pull off than it sounds.

"I believe that we will win because our message is the message Floridians want," Scott said, ticking off conservative principles such as smaller, limited government and personal freedom. "That's the message we're selling, and we're going to continue to sell that message in all of our ads."

Sounds a little like Scott is selling newspapers or doughnuts, doesn't it? Is he running for governor, or vice president of sales?

The selling of Rick Scott resumes Sunday morning in Sanibel, when he and McCollum will address the same audience for the first time: the annual meeting of Leadership Florida. It will be interesting to see whether this politically astute and largely pro-business crowd is interested in buying what Scott is selling.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Can Rick Scott sell himself to voters? 06/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 19, 2010 12:06am]
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