TALLAHASSEE — In a campaign season of wall-to-wall negative commercials, Democrat Alex Sink's worst television moment came during a commercial break.
Sink was holding her own against Republican Rick Scott at the nationally televised CNN/St. Petersburg Times debate Monday night when a makeup artist hurried up to her.
But rather than break out face powder, the woman handed Sink a Motorola Droid smart phone that bore a message from a top Sink campaign adviser.
It was a talking point — and therefore a violation of the rules for the gubernatorial debate.
As soon as the debate resumed, Scott made political hay of the rule-breaking. Sink soon jettisoned the senior adviser — Coral Gables-based insurance lobbyist Brian May — from her campaign. And news of the flap quickly eclipsed the substance of the debate on national blogs and cable news stations.
Sink said she wasn't to blame and insisted she didn't discuss the message before it was shown to her by the makeup artist.
"She put this phone in my face and she said 'I don't know who this is from' and I turned around and I looked and I said I — I couldn't tell, really, what it was," Sink said Tuesday morning when questioned by a Times/Herald reporter.
But CNN chief national correspondent John King, a debate co-host, said Tuesday that CNN reviewed an audio clip that clearly reveals that the makeup artist alerted Sink about the message.
"We listened very closely to the audio," King said. ''And the makeup artist, when she approached Alex Sink, said, 'I have a message from the staff.' And at that point they looked, it was on a cell phone. . . . It was essentially advice after the last segment of the debate telling her if that question comes up again, remember this, and be more aggressive when Rick Scott questions you."
Scott's campaign reveled in the contradiction and Sink's stumble, saying in a news release that the Democrat "cheated before she lied." And the campaign produced a radio ad mocking Sink over the Droid flap and noting that, as state chief financial officer, she oversees some insurance issues that could affect lobbyists such as May.
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The events leading up to the Droid flap happened toward the final half hour of the debate when Sink was attacking Scott for his former role as the CEO of Columbia/HCA during the 1990s. The hospital chain, the nation's largest at the time, paid a record $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud.
Scott hit back by noting that NationsBank, where Sink worked, had paid a nearly $7 million fine for duping customers into buying high-risk investments. He also noted that she sat on the board of a Tampa-based call center, Sykes Enterprises, that was sued by Florida's pension fund for misleading investors.
"The lawyer that brought that case — it was a class action case against another company — he even has said publicly that Alex Sink had nothing to do with the case, had nothing to do with the situation and didn't know about the problems," Sink said. "What more can I say?"
But her aide, May, wanted her to say more. So he sent this message that ultimately embarrassed him and his candidate: "The attorney on Sykes suit said Alex did nothing wrong. Tell not to let him keep talking about her."
The makeup artist hustled up to Sink, chatted with her and showed her the message on the Droid phone. Sink stared at it for about seven seconds.
Scott was watching the entire time as his head was being powdered. He called Mark Preston, CNN's political editor, over and complained.
"So we can get notes? We can have people that work for us come and give us messages?" Scott asked?
Said Preston: "No."
Despite May's last-second electronic message, the topic never surfaced again during the hourlong debate.
But Scott said he was "shocked'' by what Sink did.
"She didn't have to read the (message)," he said. "She did."
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Sink appeared on MSNBC late Tuesday to explain that she wasn't to blame for the cheating flap — not the message a candidate wants to convey in the final week of a too-close-to-call race. She was less talkative to reporters earlier when she would only take three questions on the topic before hastily leaving the Capitol after a Cabinet meeting.
Sink said what happened was "clearly against the rules." But she said she wasn't at fault.
"When I learned what had happened, and got to the bottom of it," she said, "I took accountability and I held the person who was responsible for the cheating accountable. And he's no longer with my campaign. That was the right action to take."
May, a one-time aide to Sen. Bill Nelson (when he was insurance commissioner), told the Times/Herald that he takes responsibility for the mistake and never intended to break the rules, which prohibited using notes — not delivering verbal messages.
"I sent a message to the hair stylist to say something to her, not to show it to her," he said. "The bottom line is that the person responsible for this is me, not Alex Sink and to say otherwise is a fabrication of what occurred."
May said he acted out of impulse "after watching (Scott) impugn her integrity and distort her record . . . the bottom line is, the moment got the better of me and I felt compelled to send that message."
"The whole idea that Alex Sink cheated is false," May said. "She didn't know that text message was coming."
Sink tried to counterpunch Tuesday by suggesting that Scott denigrated Panhandle residents for having an "oh, poor me'' attitude during the summer's BP oil spill crisis. Scott, however, said he was referring to Gov. Charlie Crist.
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Scott, beginning a seven-day bus tour, didn't mention the smart-phone flap in a standard stump speech in New Port Richey on Tuesday morning. He also traveled to Spring Hill, Inverness, The Villages and Palm City.
Unlike Sink — who limited contact with Florida reporters Tuesday — Scott invited the media along on his bus tour. He seemed energized, joking with Floral City fruit stand workers about chocolate "gator poop'' candy and relishing questions about Sink's peek at the Droid phone.
Scott said he was "shocked'' that Sink broke the rules. He said, however, that he wasn't sure how the flap will play to the electorate in a state with record unemployment and home foreclosures.
"You know, I don't know how big it is to any individual," Scott said. "But she wants to attack me all the time, and then she doesn't follow the rules. And that's a pretty simple rule to follow. . . . This is like everything she's done — she never takes responsibility."
Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at [email protected]