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Rick Scott wins tight GOP race for governor; Alex Sink wins Democratic nod

FORT LAUDERDALE — Rick Scott launched a one-man political revolution Tuesday night, defeating Attorney General Bill McCollum in the Republican primary for governor.

Scott overcame the might of the GOP establishment, the special interests who dominate the Capitol and a longtime politician determined to tar his character.

"The people of Florida have spoken and I like what they said," Scott told a ballroom of supporters in Fort Lauderdale. "Let's get to work!"

The Associated Press called the race for Scott just before 11 p.m. McCollum initially held out, waiting for the final tally and telling supporters to be patient.

At 12:34 a.m. today in an e-mailed news release, he admitted defeat. "The votes today have been tallied and I accept the voters' decision," he said, calling the primary "one for the ages.''

His concession carried with it the same pugnacious tone that marked the bare-knuckled race.

"No one could have anticipated the entrance of a multimillionaire with a questionable past who shattered campaign spending records and spent more in four months than has ever been spent in a primary race here in Florida,'' he said.

Scott's victory was a testament to his personal wealth — he spent at least $50 million of it on the campaign — as well as the thirst for political change in the Republican Party of Florida, which has been rocked by scandal and whose leaders worked to stop him cold.

"This is a man who took on the entire establishment and what he had was the people," said Arlene DiBenigno, Scott's political director. "We didn't have a traditional campaign. We had a campaign of people who were tired of the traditional establishment. They are tired of the same old thing."

Scott, 57, of Naples, pulled off one of the most startling victories in the state's history by flooding the state's airwaves with ads while sending mountains of mail to hundreds of thousands of Florida homes. A hefty amount of the flyers and ads from both campaigns was highly negative and even made supporters of McCollum and Scott a little queasy.

In what looked like a protest vote against Scott and McCollum, little-known candidate Mike McCalister received one of every 10 votes — far more than any poll had anticipated.

Scott burst on the scene in April with the first of many advertising blitzes, and cut a distinctive figure on TV with his bald head and piercing blue eyes. But he refused to debate McCollum on live statewide TV, dismissed the ritual of editorial board interviews, and refused to make public a deposition he gave in a civil case six days before announcing his campaign.

Scott also deftly and firmly planted a foothold on McCollum's right by aggressively supporting the Arizona law getting tough on illegal immigrants, and he relentlessly hammered McCollum as a "desperate career politician," a message that resonated at the polls Tuesday.

With the state party chairman often by McCollum's side, the longtime politician leveraged his relationships with the incoming House and Senate leaders, who dumped millions into a smear campaign that revolved around a record $1.7 billion Medicare fraud fine ultimately paid out by the Columbia/HCA hospital chain that Scott founded.

In the end, though, Scott's campaign said he won because he successfully branded himself as the "jobs" candidate — the man whose campaign had the slogan "Let's Get to Work." They say that message will resonate in the general election just as it did Tuesday night in the primary.

Scott will face Democrat Alex Sink and independent Lawton "Bud" Chiles in November. Sink easily defeated little-known challenger Brian Moore in the Democratic primary.

Scott is the opponent Democrats wanted. The race has major national implications, with both parties eager to claim power heading into 2012, when all congressional and legislative district lines are redrawn and the next presidential election is held.

On Election Day, Scott was on the radio bluntly criticizing John Thrasher, a state senator and state party chairman who backed McCollum. With the level of invective so high in recent weeks, it won't be easy for Republicans to mend fences, and the general election is only 70 days away.

At the polls, rank-and-file Republican voters seemed sharply divided over whether to cast their lot with Scott, the untested outsider, or the tried-and-true McCollum who also wears the unpopular mantle of the career politician.

Scott spent $40 million in an advertising arsenal the likes of which has never been seen in Florida. McCollum battled back with more than $14 million in hard-hitting ads financed by an array of businesses and special interests who make up the framework of the Republican establishment in Florida.

Most of the McCollum ads were negative, highlighting the HCA fraud and raising questions about Solantic Urgent Care, a chain of clinics Scott founded. Six days before running for governor, Scott was deposed in a lawsuit filed by a physician, but a settlement was soon reached and the deposition sealed.

Scott refused to release the deposition, prompting a lawsuit from a McCollum supporter who sought to obtain the sworn video testimony. That prompted an enraged Scott to fly to Tallahassee to host an impromptu news conference where he was served with a subpoena — a maneuver that angered him even more. Video of the news conference was used in yet another McCollum attack ad.

Some of the negative campaigning might have depressed turnout. Voting was light across much of the state Tuesday, where steady rainfall and the incessant drumbeat of negative ads likely combined to tamp down turnout. But some voters were eager to embrace Scott's message of change.

"He's a fresh start," said Kenneth Sprayberry, 73, a retired BellSouth manager, who voted for Scott in Pompano Beach. "McCollum has been there — he has done some things I don't agree with, switching back and forth on immigration laws. He's been there long enough."

The defeat for McCollum, 66, likely put an end to a venerable career in Florida politics, because it was his third statewide defeat, a setback that most political experts say cannot be overcome. After serving for 20 years in Congress, McCollum lost U.S. Senate races in 2000 and 2004 before bouncing back to win the attorney general's post in 2006.

As McCollum supporters slinked away from his Altamonte Springs hotel, Scott supporters at the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Marina began to swell. By the time Scott took the stage — and promised to govern in a bipartisan manner — the crowd was amped.

"Tonight we have sent a clear message to the Washington insiders — to the Tallahassee insiders — and the special interests that fund both of them," Scott said. "The message: We're going to clean house and hold government accountable."

Times/Herald staff writers Andy Boyle, Robbyn Mitchell and Amy Sherman contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Rick Scott wins tight GOP race for governor; Alex Sink wins Democratic nod 08/24/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 25, 2010 10:54am]
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