FORT LAUDERDALE — There was no clear winner between Republican Rick Scott and Democrat Alex Sink early this morning in the state's closest governor's race in 16 years.
Scott spent $73 million of his own money on the campaign — more than any politician in state history — but slow results in richly Democratic South Florida counties gave Sink hope and kept her from conceding the race.
Just after 2 a.m., Scott appeared before about 200 supporters at the Hilton Marina Hotel in Fort Lauderdale to thank them for their help and patience.
"I apologize this has taken so long. … Thanks for your patience," he said. "Let me tell you some good news. Based on the numbers we're seeing now, after all of the votes are counted, I am absolutely confident I will be the next great governor of the state of Florida. … We'll have more to say maybe even later tonight, probably tomorrow."
He ended the short speech by saying, "We know we're going to win and we have won. We look forward to getting the state back to work."
Just after midnight, Sink told supporters at the Tampa Marriott Waterside, "We're going to let the people of Florida, all of the people of Florida, have their voices heard."
She sent her supporters home as her staff planned to work late. The campaign planned a briefing for reporters by mid-morning today.
At 2:30 a.m., state returns showed 99 percent of precincts reporting with Scott leading Sink 49 percent to 48 percent, a margin of about 54,000 votes out of some 5 million cast. Around 5:30 a.m., the Associated Press reported that around 53,000 votes separated the two candidates.
The Palm Beach Post reported that Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher said an employee error made it necessary for the votes from 10 of the remaining 53 precincts to be recounted, delaying the final count. The process has dragged on for hours, stalling the final outcome.
Scott and his family spent the night sequestered in a suite on the top floor of the Hilton, where he had blocked off all 589 rooms.
Several hundred Scott supporters lingered after midnight.
"Sometimes you have to wait for good things to happen," said Terry Flynn of Naples, a friend of Scott.
Before retiring to a hotel suite to watch returns, Sink was energized after the hectic final day of campaign stops.
"We're not gritting our teeth bracing for a recount, but there are things that could lead that way,'' Sink said.
The margin separating Scott and Sink was close, but still about 1 percent with late returns being counted. For a machine recount to be ordered under state law, the margin of victory must be within one-half of 1 percent.
The tight race clashes with the past three gubernatorial elections in which the Republican candidate has won by an average of 10 points.
It was the closest race since Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles won re-election by 1.6 percentage points in 1994. The closest governor's race in state history was in 1876, when Democrat George Drew beat Republican Marcellus Stearns by four-tenths of 1 percent.
An exit poll from Edison Research showed Scott was winning more independent votes, according to the exit poll, but people who considered themselves having "moderate" political views went to Sink, 60 to 37.
There was also a slight gender gap: Sink, who would be the first woman elected the state's governor, captured a majority of women. Scott appeared to be leading among men by 11 points.
Republicans entered Election Day feeling confident about a fourth consecutive win. A presidential-type voter-turnout operation helped push thousands more Republicans than Democrats to early voting locations.
But Scott's controversial career as head of the country's largest hospital chain pushed some Republicans to consider casting their vote for Sink. And Democrats, who outnumber their rivals by 600,000 in Florida, hoped to close the gap with a big Election Day turnout.
Scott, 57, splashed onto the political scene this year, launching a political marketing campaign that has flooded TV airwaves since April.
With help from the Republican Party of Florida, Scott spent $61.2 million on TV advertising. His ads played on anti-immigration sentiments during the primary and then voter dissatisfaction with Washington in the general election.
Sink, 62, kept pace with Scott on TV during the 10-week general election, spending $27.6 million with help from the Florida Democratic Party.
Sink, who would be the first Democrat elected to the office in 16 years, opened her ad campaign by mocking the acrimonious GOP primary. One of her most frequently aired ads starred sheriffs and state attorneys from across Florida casting doubt on Scott.
Scott ran a campaign that came to resemble another corporate takeover by the soft-spoken but hard-charging former hospital executive.
In a normal political year, the Medicare fraud that tarnished Scott's tenure at Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. would render him unqualified as a candidate for high office. But this is no normal year, because of the foul economy and President Barack Obama's unpopularity.
Scott effectively nationalized the race by tarring Sink as an "Obama liberal" and criticizing the president's health care mandate and economic stimulus program at every opportunity.
Sink, a methodical and risk-averse manager, brought those characteristics to her campaign.
She told staff to avoid any TV ads that could be perceived as stretching the truth and that wouldn't "pass the PolitiFact test."
Sink ran a largely nonpartisan campaign, portraying herself as a moderate and political heir to Chiles and Bob Graham, the last two Democrats elected governor. She used that strategy successfully in 2006, when she was elected the state's chief financial officer.
This year, she kept her distance from Obama. She steered clear of the rancorous national debate over health care changes, rarely defended the stimulus plan and refused to resolve "scheduling conflicts" when Obama made public appearances in the state.
"No Democrat can win with just Democratic voters. You have to pull in independents, too," Sink said.
"But that's not hard for me because I've always been a fiscally conservative moderate Democrat," she said. "That's how I won the last race."
In the final week of the general election campaign, Scott visited nearly 50 cities, barnstorming the state in a large blue tour bus emblazoned with his campaign promises and the words "plan to turn Florida around."
He drew enthusiastic crowds of Republicans in most places, and former Gov. Jeb Bush gave him a rousing endorsement at a rally in Orlando. Tea party activists responded to Scott's message of cutting taxes.
While Scott has boasted about owing no political favors if he won the governor's office, he would arrive in Tallahassee with the burden of having to keep a boatload of promises.
The most pressing would be his pledge to create 700,000 jobs over seven years. Scott has also vowed to phase out the corporate income tax, cut property taxes by 19 percent, reduce the state work force by 5 percent, expand public school voucher programs and make business-friendly changes to the civil justice system.
"We're going to turn this state around," Scott often repeated in his stump speech.
Inherent in that pledge is a criticism of his fellow Republicans, who have controlled the debate on state policies for the past 12 years.
Sink, meanwhile, rarely criticized the Republican-dominated Legislature and Cabinet, despite a coordinated campaign from the Florida Democratic Party that tried to highlight a series of corruption scandals that involved state party leaders.
After replacing most of the top people on her campaign in April, Sink settled on a motto of "nobody's governor but yours."
But she abandoned that a week into the general election, focusing instead on her "business plan" for the state and repeatedly casting herself as the candidate with the most integrity.
In a year of high anti-incumbent sentiments among voters, Sink highlighted her career as a banker and rarely mentioned her four years as the state's elected CFO, virtually ignoring that her office put the state's checkbook online, saved millions through budget cuts and had canceled some expensive contracts.
Michael C. Bender can be reached at email@example.com.