Old Florida grace meets new Florida haste as candidates cross paths in the Panhandle

DEFUNIAK SPRINGS — A pig-sized barrel smoker and the sweet smell of barbecue served as a beacon guiding the campaign's RV into the parking lot at Smokey J's Cafe.

Adam Putnam, a Republican candidate for agriculture commissioner, stepped into the hot midday sun and immediately recognized the row of shiny SUVs parked nearby.

"Looks like Rick Scott is here, too," he said, as his clan — wife, four young kids and two campaign aides — took a break from a recent daylong whistle-stop campaign through the Panhandle.

All morning long, Putnam literally and figuratively walked in the shadow of the upstart Republican candidate for governor as Scott made his first major campaign swing.

At the restaurant door, Putnam's daughter Libby, 7, peaked her head inside.

"Daddy, he's here," she said, Scott's presence announced like a bogeyman.

Putnam laughed as he walked inside and claimed a table on the opposite side of the small, spartan restaurant from Scott's entourage.

The two men approached each other and shook hands for the first time, firm grip, gentlemanly.

The random encounter on the campaign trail connected old Florida with new, old money with new, experience with inexperience, exemplifying the dichotomy often contrasted on ballots in a state filled with transplants.

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Putnam, 35, is a wealthy fifth- generation Floridian whose Polk County family owns citrus groves and cattle ranches in Central Florida. He graduated from the University of Florida and his family lives in his grandfather's old house in Bartow.

His mop of red hair and Southern drawl give him a Mayberry effect. He is resigning from his U.S. House seat after five terms to run for agriculture commissioner to, as he says, "return to my roots." It is a by-the-book move for an ambitious politician who has risen through the ranks. A statewide run for this cabinet post would put him in line to run for governor in the future.

Scott, in contrast, is coming into politics fresh and aiming straight for the top. A Kansas City native, he moved to Naples seven years ago, the minimum time necessary to run for governor. A truck driver's son and entrepreneur, he made his millions building a hospital empire, Columbia/HCA, and now owns an investment company.

With his tall frame and bald head, the 57-year-old political novice has become instantly recognizable thanks to the power of television. Scott's bid for the Republican nomination for governor is his first attempt to win elective office.

Scott and Putnam are running for different positions, but made for interesting foils as their campaigns followed the same path for a six-county tour that began in Chipley and ended in Pensacola.

At each event, Scott spoke first, Putnam followed. And Scott always drew the most attention.

By the time Putnam took the microphone, the crowd dwindled. A horde of voters and reporters, including one from the Wall Street Journal, encircled Scott as Putnam spoke to the few remaining.

"The guy running for governor leaves and you're done," Putnam joked at the first event when a TV cameraman went running after Scott. "The story of running for agriculture commissioner."

Putnam delivered a stronger campaign speech — spending half the time explaining what an agriculture commissioner does — but Scott held the star power thanks to his ubiquitous TV commercials.

"I get recognized everywhere I go now," said a bemused Scott.

• • •

At the barbecue restaurant, Scott finished his brisket and went to visit Putnam.

Scott asked about the campaign's progress and the two candidates made small talk until Putnam's son, Hughes, came back from the bathroom.

"Hey, you took my seat," the 4-year-old said to a surprised Scott, who grabbed another chair.

Soon, the candidates finished lunch and departed for yet another speech at an outdoor amphitheater downtown, a historic place where intellectuals from across the nation met yearly a century ago as part of the Chautauqua movement.

A good bit of partisanship, less thoughtful contemplation, took center stage on this day. Scott spoke, Putnam followed. The sparse crowd sat clumped in the shade weathering the 100-degree heat and sporadically showed interest in stump speeches.

When the candidates finished, the crowd came alive for a cake auction, complete with a fast-talking auctioneer. The top prize: a red-white-and blue two-layer cake covered in butter cream icing and topped with homemade orange-flavored fondant and fondant accents.

Putnam and company's RV honked farewell as it departed for the next stop.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Old Florida grace meets new Florida haste as candidates cross paths in the Panhandle 06/25/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 26, 2010 12:21am]

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