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Rick Scott's win invokes fear among Tallahassee insiders, but Alex Sink is bigger worry

ALTAMONTE SPRINGS — For powerful Tallahassee insiders accustomed to winning, Rick Scott represents their worst fears.

But they have an even bigger worry: Democrats might win in November.

Many top-tier lobbyists don't know their Republican nominee for governor. They backed Bill McCollum, pumped millions into his primary campaign, and lost. Now, with party control of the Governor's Mansion at stake, they mounted an effort Wednesday to show that Republicans are one big happy family.

Scott, who avoided the spotlight a day after victory except for a CNN interview, said party unity is being repaired. He cited statements of support from the Republican Governors' Association, state legislative leaders and Florida Republican Party Chairman John Thrasher.

"We're going to put it back together," predicted Thrasher, the state senator who last week demanded Scott take down a TV ad he called "patently not true." Thrasher is heading to Fort Lauderdale on Thursday in an attempt to make peace with Scott.

It might not be easy. Scott spent a fortune cementing an image as an outsider untainted by "special interests." To accept their money and advice could invite accusations that Scott isn't being true to his cause.

"This stuff gets passionate, but it's over and now we move ahead," Thrasher said. To the notion that some Republican lobbyists or groups might defect to Democrat Alex Sink, Thrasher said: "Absolutely not."

Some say the task of unifying Republicans is Scott's job. Others say it is the role of party leaders, who took the rare step of getting aggressively involved in a primary battle.

Mark Wilson of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, a leading business organization that raised and spent about $1.5 million for McCollum's campaign, said Sink had called him to "reach out," but Scott hadn't. Wilson said Sink, a former Chamber board member, would get consideration for the group's support, as will Scott. "We're going to hit the reset button," Wilson said.

At Associated Industries of Florida, which co-endorsed Scott and McCollum, CEO Barney Bishop predicted Scott will attend a Republican Party victory dinner on Sept. 10 and "they'll all be singing Kumbaya.''

"Ultimately," Bishop said, "Republicans know that to win this governor's race they are going to have to come together.''

Sen. Mike Haridopolos, who used his political committee to finance a barrage of negative ads against Scott as campaign help for McCollum, called the bitter feud "water under the bridge."

Haridopolos compared the situation to that of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008: "When the election was over they got back together, forged an alliance and won two years ago. I expect Rick Scott to be in it to win. I'm in it to win," he said.

After declaring victory, Scott predicted the party would unify, then threw one last jab. "The deal-makers are crying in their cocktails," he said in his victory speech.

That wasn't far off. An election night gaggle of lobbyists, gathered at a Hilton along Interstate 4 near Orlando to crown McCollum as the GOP nominee, quickly became a political wake.

As they packed their bags and checked out Wednesday, many of the same lobbyists wore shell-shocked looks. Asked if he would raise money for Scott like he did for McCollum, U.S. Sugar Corp. lobbyist Robert Coker said: "Rick Scott looks like he doesn't need any money."

Some Republicans worry that Scott's willingness to pay for his own campaign could make the party irrelevant. "To have a free-wheeler spend this kind of money is telling a lot of people that he's not necessarily going to work with the party," said Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson. "A lot of people are saying, 'What are we going to do?' "

Tampa businesswoman Kathleen Shanahan, an adviser to GOP attorney general nominee Pam Bondi, said the party must heal quickly and predicted that business leaders and former governors Jeb Bush and Bob Martinez are focused on making that happen.

"The Republican Party has nine weeks to maintain its leadership,'' she said. "It's to our competitive advantage to get unified faster and consolidated quicker, within all the legal boundaries."

Lobbyist and strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich said if Scott is "gracious" toward the losing side, it will go a long way toward healing the wounds. "How inclusive he will be is up to him," Stipanovich said.

By all accounts, McCollum and Scott held similar positions on the issues, but their strategy and tones were markedly different. Scott offered a conservative hope-and-change agenda that mimicked the themes, but not the policy, of President Barack Obama, who carried Florida in 2008. McCollum's campaign had a more negative tone, like that of Obama's losing opponent, John McCain. McCollum dwelled on his experience while dismissing his opponent as an untrustworthy neophyte.

McCollum won only 14 of 67 counties and had his best showing in Miami-Dade. But Hispanics, who dominate the county's electorate, did not vote for McCollum in the margins his supporters hoped.

Though total statewide voter turnout was about 20 percent, the GOP race elicited 32 percent turnout — a reflection of the roughly $70 million governor's race as well as the three-way battle for attorney general won by Bondi.

Along with Scott's victory came a negative aura, with polls showing nearly 40 percent of voters with an unfavorable opinion of him. Sink now hopes to exploit that and she said Wednesday she'll mount "a very aggressive campaign" against Scott, and won't shy away from attacking him on the Medicare fraud case against his former company.

"It's important for Floridians to understand what the past experience of the potential future governor is,'' Sink said.

AIF's Bishop acknowledged that some business leaders may be willing to endorse Sink, a former banker with moderate political views, over the lesser-known Scott, but he hopes not.

"I've had business executives tell me that they don't like what they've heard from Scott and they do see Alex Sink as not as dangerous as some Democratic candidates they've had in the past,'' Bishop said. "I remind them she's with the trial lawyers and the unions.''

On Wednesday, the Republican Party spin machine was suddenly singing a different tune. The party that spent months criticizing and otherwise undermining Scott put out a release that said: "Scott provides fresh ideas, Sink embraces Obama's failed agenda."

Times political editor Adam C. Smith and Times/Herald staff writer John Frank contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

Rick Scott's win invokes fear among Tallahassee insiders, but Alex Sink is bigger worry 08/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 26, 2010 7:28am]
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