Get used to seeing Scott until election

Rick Scott and football broadcasting legend Pat Summerall worked the Jacksonville Jaguars stadium, shaking hundreds of hands and mugging for photos for more than an hour before the game.

But it was Scott — not the famed sportscaster — who was instantly recognized by throngs of fans just days before Florida's Republican primary for governor.

"Oh, that's Rick Scott," said football fan Lynn Huff, who had trouble recalling Summerall's name. "He's on television all the time."

Florida voters can expect to see the tall and lanky bald guy a whole lot more on their TV sets between now and Nov. 2.

Scott already ran so many 30-second commercials that it could take almost 25 days to watch all of them if only one station showed each spot back to back, according to data from media buyers and the Campaign Media Analysis Group.

The Naples millionaire, who spent $50 million-plus to be the most marketed candidate ever in a primary, could double down by the end of the race and drop a record total of $100 million — albeit with the help of Republican donors.

Scott faces Democrat Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer, and independent Bud Chiles — both of whom have far less money and much less name recognition. Sink, who spent less than $3 million in a battle against a little-known opponent, is familiar with campaigns against well-known, well-funded Republicans. Her husband, Bill McBride, was crushed in Gov. Jeb Bush's 2002 re-election.

"Every election is a tough fight," said Sink's pollster, David Beattie. "This is no different — especially against a guy who has unlimited amounts of money. He ran a three-dimensional campaign."

The strategy and style of the campaign also offers voters a glimpse into the personality of the political newcomer and foreshadows what's in store for his opponent come November.

Whether he wins in November or not, Scott's campaign already serves as a case study into Madison Avenue-style elections in the fourth most populous state.

Since Scott unexpectedly announced in April, his team has relentlessly polled the state and used focus groups of state voters, who were equipped with electronic dials to measure their response to campaign images and phrases. The campaign then packaged all the data in a smooth — critics say "slick'' — radio, television, mail and robotic phone call campaign at a level unseen in Florida.

Scott's $40 million in TV and radio buys exceeded the sums spent by President Barack Obama's historic juggernaut in 2008 when he outspent Republican John McCain on air. Scott also assembled a team of paid staff and volunteers, and created enough buzz to ensure nightly televised news coverage at almost any campaign stop in the closing days of the Aug. 24 primary.

All of it made the once-unknown Scott into a political brand with a readily recognizable slogan: Let's Get to Work.

But the Scott brand has a warning label: Medicare fraud.

Sink plans to make a campaign issue of the $1.7 billion fine paid by the Columbia/HCA hospital chain Scott founded and ran in the 1990s. In contrast, Sink's campaign says that she helped make $1.7 billion in small business loans when she was an executive at NationsBank and Bank of America in the 1990s.

Scott notes that Attorney General Bill McCollum made Scott's business scandals a central issue in the Republican primary. "I won," Scott said. But the ads scarred Scott and left a highly negative impression among many independent voters. They don't get to cast ballots in partisan primaries, but they're often the swing votes that decide general-election matchups.

Consider what happened when Jaguars fan Ed Dowling saw Scott at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium before the Saturday game with the Miami Dolphins. He quickly walked up to Scott and shook his hand.

"I'm man enough to tell you this: I'm not voting for either of you," said Dowling referring to Scott and McCollum. "You're both lying through your teeth."

Judging by the hundreds who mobbed Scott like a celebrity, the sentiment was in the minority, especially among Republicans who were revved up. About 350,000 more Republicans than Democrats voted in the primary.

The average TV viewer in the Jacksonville area saw a Scott ad 198 times between April and the primary. Viewers in Miami-Dade and Broward counties — Florida's most expensive media market — saw Scott's spots 150 times. In Tampa Bay and the Orlando area: about 266 and 265 times, respectively.

In nearly every city, Republicans likely heard Scott's message via the $1 million he spent on conservative talk radio, frequently listened to by six in 10 GOP primary voters. That was on top of the 1 million phone calls placed to voters and the staggering number of glossy flyers — 28 — sent to more than 2 million GOP voters in general. The campaign specifically targeted soldiers overseas, women and even gun owners with specially designed messages.

Also targeted by Scott: newer, less frequent voters who were more apt to appreciate the Tea Party flavor of an outsider candidate. The campaign factored in these less likely voters when it polled — while many public pollsters didn't — which is one reason Scott advisors say McCollum was in more trouble than many surveys indicated in the final days of the campaign.

Scott's campaign is two operations in one: a crew of razor-sharp Washington media strategists along with three strong women with deep Florida roots — state press secretary Jen Baker, political director Arlene DiBenigno and campaign manager Susie Wiles, who is Summerall's daughter.

At the de facto head of Scott's boardroom of advisers sits political strategist and pollster Tony Fabrizio, a quick-thinking quote machine with a knack for reading the fine print — the so-called "cross tabs'' — of polls to identify what's important to voters and how to persuade them.

Fabrizio's data is then spun into ads produced by the Washington Firm of OnMessage and by Nelson Warfield, who produced commercials for Scott's Conservatives for Patients' Rights group, one of the first political committees to fight Obama's health care plan last year.

While Baker handles Florida press, the campaign manages national press with CRC Public Relations, which worked on Scott's coalition campaign and guided media strategy for the 2004 political group Swiftboat Veterans for Truth that knocked Democrat John Kerry off his message.

Scott delegated so much responsibility to his advisers that, in the waning weeks of the campaign, he said he had no idea how much and where they spent his money on TV, such as the time when a Scott media buyer plunked down a $105,000 check at a Tampa broadcaster's office and said "We'll take whatever's available."

Scott advisers compared the strategy to "the Colin Powell Doctrine" —– a reference to the military theory of employing overwhelming force.  

Two spots were particularly devastating for McCollum in the final month.

One used footage from a Times/Herald video showing McCollum giving completely different answers to the same question about immigration. The ad not only raised doubts about McCollum's position, it made him look untrustworthy at a time he was raising doubts about Scott. The Scott campaign then followed up with another ad that featured footage of former Republican Party of Florida chairman Jim Greer, who now faces criminal theft charges, endorsing McCollum.

The Greer ad, strategists say, helped stop McCollum's momentum, which had surged thanks to an all-positive ad paid for by the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

"McCollum wanted to make the race about trust," Fabrizio said. "Once the Greer ad ran, people were thinking: 'Well, hold on, Mr. Career politician.' "

Though Democrats said they would prefer to face Scott with all his scandals over McCollum. Fabrizio said the attorney general couldn't credibly attack Sink for voting with him on the Cabinet for potentially bad taxpayer investments or for ringing up $413,000 in-state plane flights from 2007 to 2009 — an amount that exceeded the use of McCollum, who was mocked for his flights in an ad by Scott.

"What is there to say about Rick Scott that $21 million from the McCollum campaign hasn't already told them?" Fabrizio said rhetorically. "How much do you think there is to tell about Alex Sink?"

If Scott tries to make Sink look like an insider-politician clone of McCollum, her pollster, Dave Beattie, said it won't work. He said Democrats will have the money and the will to mount an aggressive campaign showing she, too, is an outsider who has held office for just four years.

"It's not an anti-incumbent year," Beattie said. "It's an anti-incompetence year."

But it's also a time of desperation, political instability and rampant joblessness. Scott's campaign, noting his rags-to-riches outsider story, harnessed that uncertainty and made him the candidate of the economy in the Republican race.

Nowhere was the power of his Let's Get to Work slogan more evident than on the Friday before the election, when Scott made a pit stop at a Dade City gas station before a meet-and-greet campaign event.

"Hey, it's the jobs guy!'' said resident James Hives as he waited in line.

His wife, Cheryl Jefferson Hives, chimed in: "He's going to help me get back to work."

Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@miamiherald.com.

Rick Scott on the trail

Watch Rick Scott interact with voters at video.tampabay.com.

Get used to seeing Scott until election 08/28/10 [Last modified: Sunday, August 29, 2010 12:48am]

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