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Candidates for governor light up Florida TVs with a bonfire of money

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's top two candidates for governor have spent more on TV ads in the past 10 weeks than what the state budgeted for textbooks in Hillsborough County the past three years.

Republican Rick Scott and Democrat Alex Sink have burned through $54.6 million in their TV ad wars, or about $6 million more than the textbook budget in the state's third-largest school district since the 2008 school year.

"It looks like a staggering amount of money, but when you think about the dynamics, it's not that surprising," said Cory Tilley, one of former Gov. Jeb Bush's political strategists. "This is the modern political world in Florida. And it's complicated and expensive."

The total is nearly double what Republican Charlie Crist and Democrat Jim Davis spent in their 2006 campaign. It also reinforces the importance candidates place on 30-second ads to get their messages out to 11.2 million voters spread through Florida's 10 different media markets.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Sink, the state's chief financial officer, has kept pace with Scott's record-breaking spending.

Scott, a wealthy Naples businessman, buried primary rival Bill McCollum by nearly 3-to-1 on television.

Scott averaged $2 million per week on TV for 16 weeks before the primary election.

With help from the Republican Party of Florida, he has increased that to about $2.8 million per week in 10 weeks leading up to the Election Day on Tuesday.

But Sink and the Florida Democratic Party have stayed nearly even, spending an average $2.7 million during the same time.

Sink did not have a competitive primary and could stockpile her resources. She also made the controversial decision to start her TV ad campaign in mid August.

The early start caused hand wringing among many Democrats who worried that Sink's expensive ads would be overshadowed by the final days of the bitter Republican primary.

Sink and the Florida Democratic Party had spent $4.3 million on TV by the time Scott's campaign spent its first $1 million on the air in the general election.

Sink's ad campaign also included a two-minute spot that aired in Tampa on Oct. 11 and in Jacksonville on Oct. 14.

Scott chose to hold off spending his own money right away against Sink. He had already pumped $51 million of his own cash into the primary, exceeding his own internal budget, and wanted the GOP insiders who financed McCollum in the primary to foot the bill for his general election costs.

The Republican Governors Association and the Republican Party of Florida paid for the first $1.7 million of Scott's TV ads in the general election. But Scott has since pumped another $9 million of his money into the race as of Oct. 15, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. On Wednesday, Scott also announced that he had pumped another $1.5 million into the 527 electioneering committee he set up separate from his campaign.

Scott's internal debate about whether to spend early against Sink was similar to the decision McCollum faced in the primary. McCollum also opted to hold on to his resources until the end.

Both Scott and Sink are spending heaviest now, the final week of the campaign.

Scott and the Republican Party of Florida spent $5.2 million in the final week, compared to $6.4 million from Sink and the Democrats.

For the final week, both candidates have their ads on heaviest rotation in North Florida, where Scott performed well in the primary and where Sink believes she is the rare Democrat who can compete among the state's most conservative voters. North Florida ads also cost a fraction of what they do in the Tampa, Orlando or Miami markets.

Despite the costs, Sink bought the most TV time in Orlando over the span of her entire campaign. But Sink's time in Orlando was nearly matched by her paid airtime in Tallahassee, West Palm Beach, Panama City and Jacksonville. Only Miami, Gainesville, Fort Myers and Pensacola were considerably less.

Scott, meanwhile, bought most of his TV time in Tallahassee. That was followed by Panama City, Tampa, Orlando, Pensacola and West Palm Beach.

Michael C. Bender can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or mbender@sptimes.com.

Candidates for governor light up Florida TVs with a bonfire of money 10/27/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 12:26am]

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