For Florida voters, it's gut-check time.
Now comes the character test — not for the politicians, but for the people.
The outcome of the race for governor three days from now will reveal the true mind-set of Floridians in 2010.
Are Florida voters truly sold on Republican Rick Scott's promise to create all those jobs?
Are people willing to install Alex Sink, a Democrat, in the Governor's Mansion after 12 years of Republican dominance?
Is the public's anger at President Barack Obama and Washington in general so intense that voters will entrust their future to Scott, even though he's untested and has never satisfactorily explained his role in the Medicare fraud at his former employer?
Can Sink overcome the perception of her Obama connection and keep her head above the Republican wave that seems to be sweeping the country?
This has been another mean, vitriolic campaign fought out on airwaves. As a result, many everyday voters are underwhelmed by both candidates.
"I don't like either one of them, really," said cabdriver Steve Russell, 57, a lifelong Panama City resident and a Democrat who plans to vote for Sink Tuesday.
He's not alone.
Both candidates have high negatives, but Scott's are higher: He's deeply "underwater" in the latest Quinnipiac poll, with 50 percent of voters viewing him unfavorably and 39 percent favorably. Those are Katherine Harris-like poll numbers, but Scott appears unfazed by them.
"We're going to do well," Scott said. "They know that this election is about jobs."
Scott is as tightly scripted as a Twilight Zone episode. Ask him about the weather and he talks about his jobs plan. The gaffe-obsessed media despises this, but like it or not, disciplined, scripted candidates often win.
Sink, who often mentions the Columbia/HCA Medicare fraud case while campaigning, said the race isn't just about competing jobs' plans. It's about ethics.
"What's going to carry me over the top is the enthusiasm I see out there. I am the best and the right choice to lead this state," she said. "I'm someone the voters can trust."
Still, Republicans seem more energized — it's what GOP strategist Mac Stipanovich calls "the disparity in intensity." About 200 bundled-up people braved 52-degree temperatures to greet Scott at a Dunkin' Donuts in Panama City on Friday morning.
In a world of 30-second ads, Sink's message seems fuzzy at times, and it's hard for distracted voters to feel passionate about "accountability" as a campaign theme. Sink is more of a known quantity, but she's part of the system — a problem this year.
Democrats say Scott's problem isn't Medicare fraud. It's that he's too conservative for a big chunk of moderate GOP voters on issues like immigration and the proper role of government in a democratic society.
But for the anti-Obama fervor, Sink's Democratic strategist Steve Schale says, Scott wouldn't even be in the ball game. He would be dismissed as a rich but untrustworthy neophyte.
"The environment is the only thing that's keeping him in play," Schale said.
Schale, who directed Obama's impressive Florida win in 2008, foresees a close, down-to-the-wire race this time.
"I don't expect it will be an early night," Schale said.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.