TAMPA — Politics is funny sometimes in Florida.
One day people call you a fraud who ripped off taxpayers and financed smut, the next day they hail you as a visionary leader, job creator and good friend. One day you're denouncing special interest and lobbyist money, the next day you are courting it.
Such is the case with Rick Scott, the rich businessman who stunned the GOP establishment last week by beating Bill McCollum for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Only a week ago, state and national party leaders treated Scott as a dangerous pariah, but now they're eagerly embracing him and hoping for forgiveness.
"Rick articulated a common sense, pro-jobs, conservative message, and that resonated with voters big time. … He has our full support,'' said House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, who along with Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos, funneled more than a million dollars to bankroll TV ads basically depicting Scott as a crook.
Watching the passel of legislators fawn over Scott at a finance meeting Monday at the University Club in Tampa, it was clear that Mr. Outsider is on the verge of being the kingpin of insiders.
After criticizing McCollum for having Tallahassee insiders and special interests bankroll his campaign, Scott is now beckoning lobbyists for contributions and schmoozing with legislative leaders and "Tallahassee insiders" he used to scorn.
"Politicians are politicians,'' chuckled Gayle Cooper, a retired flight instructor who was impressed by Scott during a recent campaign stop. "They keep saying, 'I'm an outsider,' but five minutes after they're elected, they're not. They're insiders."
Scott spent about $50 million of his own money winning the primary and said Monday he "probably" was done reaching into his own pockets. Anybody who supports his agenda is welcome to contribute, he said in Tampa, before meeting with a group of lobbyists and top Republican fundraisers.
Later he held a unity rally that drew about 150 Republican activists and elected officials to an airplane hangar in Tampa.
"We can change this country,'' Scott declared. "We're going to start with the state of Florida, but we're going to change back from the socialist policies of the Obama administration, and we're going to start right here in Florida.''
Scott, meanwhile, has to pick a running mate by Thursday under state law. State Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, one leading contender, on Monday said she would not consider accepting the job because of family reasons, though she remains an enthusiastic supporter. She said Scott understands the risks of losing his outsider persona.
"I worried a little bit about that,'' said Dockery, who said she and Scott and his wife spoke at length about it over dinner Sunday. "He is going to be the same person. He's going to pursue changing business as usual in Tallahassee, but he also knows you can't do it alone."
Robin Stublen, founder of the Punta Gorda Tea Party, rallied behind Scott as he fought against the Republican establishment in the primary. But he said he is practical and understands Scott needs to mend fences with the party. And given how much Scott spent from his own pocket, Stublen doesn't mind if Scott gets help funding his general election campaign.
"I don't think it will hurt him," he said. "I don't think it's going to change the man one iota."
Publicly, Scott was gracious and cordial to some of the legislative leaders who fiercely opposed his candidacy. Behind the scenes, Scott was more blunt.
Scott had a tense conversation just after the election with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour over the Republican Governors Association's decision to denounce a Scott ad against McCollum. Barbour is scheduled to join Scott at rallies in Miami and Jacksonville on today, along with former Gov. Jeb Bush, who campaigned for McCollum.
Scott advisers also held some bitter feelings against McCollum's campaign for what Scott called "dirty tricks" — such as the decision to pay for young men dressed as a doctor and a prison inmate to hound Scott throughout the state to suggest his health care companies broke the law.
Ads Cannon and Haridopolos helped fund blasted Scott for leading a hospital chain that paid $1.7 billion in fines for Medicare fraud and in one case said he "profited from porn" for investing in a Hispanic social networking website that partners with Playboy Mexico.
"They made big mistakes,'' quipped Scott, drawing slightly nervous laughter from Cannon, Haridopolos and Tampa Bay Republican legislators sitting with him at a conference table.
McCollum has not endorsed Scott — "I feel sorry for him, what he's going through,'' Scott said — but most of the party establishment is jumping on board.
Scott made clear he intends to nationalize the election and connect Democratic nominee Alex Sink with President Barack Obama's agenda. Sink has challenged Scott to five statewide televised debates.
"It's not surprising that Rick Scott is embracing the special interest insiders and career politicians he campaigned against just last week, because Rick Scott will do anything to help himself," said Kyra Jennings, spokesperson for Alex Sink for Governor. "Alex Sink, a respected business leader, is fed up with the partisanship and special interests in Tallahassee, and her focus is on helping the people of Florida."
Times/Herald staff writers John Frank, Marc Caputo and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.