TALLAHASSEE — Rick Scott is all over TV, spending his millions on ads promoting himself as an outsider candidate for governor against "career politician" Bill McCollum.
And Scott has agreed to two limited TV debates with McCollum, but balked at going on live TV statewide for one hour — free of charge — to debate his Republican opponent, unless the location was moved away from McCollum's Orlando base to one of Scott's choosing: Jacksonville.
McCollum agreed to the move Wednesday, but Scott insists on a public venue that organizers say they can't provide.
The flap over the only statewide TV debate comes as Scott also is passing up invitations for interviews from newspaper editorial boards. The wealthy former hospital executive has never run for public office, but by spending more than $25 million on 30-second ads, Scott can largely control his campaign message.
McCollum accuses Scott of "ducking" the debate to avoid subjecting himself to scrutiny about his platform and his business record.
"The people in Orlando, in Jacksonville, in Fort Myers and other places are not going to see us debate if he doesn't agree," McCollum said. "It's wrong of him not to. I hope that he will allow that debate to take place."
If no agreement is reached, the McCollum-Scott contest may be decided in the Aug. 24 primary without any opportunity for all voters to see the candidates in a live, unscripted televised format.
Statewide televised debates in Florida have a history of providing colorful and revealing moments, such as Lawton Chiles' quip about "the old he-coon" overtaking Jeb Bush in 1994 and Bill McBride's flub to NBC's Tim Russert in 2002 when he was asked about the cost of the class-size amendment.
Scott spokeswoman Jennifer Baker noted that it was Scott who first challenged McCollum to four debates and that Scott has just completed a six-day statewide bus tour that provided close access to traveling reporters.
"I know the editorial boards and TV stations think they're the only arbiters of what makes a good governor," Baker said. "But we have two debates in television studios. We want one where the community can come and it's bigger and it's public."
The disputed TV debate, in planning for a year, is sponsored by Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association.
The groups sponsored similar debates in the race for governor in 2006 and president in 2008.
"This is our third debate cycle,'' said Leadership Florida president Wendy Abberger. "All of those we've invited except Mr. Scott have gladly accepted.''
Florida Press Association president Dean Ridings said his group will move the debate to a Jacksonville TV station, but there's no time to find a public venue.
"Rick Scott wants a debate in North Florida, and we have made provisions to do that," Ridings said. "We don't have the resources to find a public setting in such a short period of time."
The debate would be broadcast the evening of Aug. 11 on eight stations, including WFTS-Ch. 28 in Tampa and WPLG-Ch. 10 in Miami and network outlets in Orlando, Jacksonville, West Palm Beach, Fort Myers, Tallahassee and Panama City.
McCollum on Wednesday bowed to Scott's insistence that the debate be moved from Orlando to Jacksonville.
"We are happy to accommodate the Rick Scott campaign's 'demand' to move the debate to Jacksonville," McCollum senior adviser Doyle Bartlett wrote to Leadership Florida.
Scott and McCollum have two TV debates scheduled next week, both to limited audiences. They will meet together on Miami's Univision-23 on Monday, and on WTVT-Ch. 13 in Tampa on Thursday.
Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.