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Still much to learn about Rick Scott

JACKSONVILLE — Rick Scott has been running for governor only two months, and nearly half of Republicans in a new poll say they'd vote for him.

Scott has never run for office. The former chief executive of the Columbia/HCA hospital chain moved to Florida seven years ago this month when he and his wife Annette paid $11.5 million for a house in Naples.

Practically overnight, Scott has become the face of anti-incumbent fervor in Florida.

His polling surge may or may not continue, and it might say more about his GOP rival, Attorney General Bill McCollum, than it does about Scott.

A 57-year-old truck driver's son from Kansas City, Scott ran a doughnut shop, got a law degree at Southern Methodist, spent six years in the Navy and became one of the nation's wealthiest health care executives.

He has spent nearly $15 million of his own money on TV ads and mailings stressing his conservative views. He likes Arizona's tough anti-immigration law and favors less regulation of business, as well as oil drilling "when we can do it safely."

"I'm pro-jobs, pro-growth, pro-Second Amendment, pro-life and pro-family," Scott says.

A lot of Republicans are pro-Scott, according to the new Quinnipiac University poll, in which Scott holds a 13-point lead over McCollum (44 to 31 percent with the remainder undecided, and a 3.5 percent margin of error).

McCollum has been in politics for 30 years. He is well known, experienced and predictable — traits that seem so out of favor with voters right now.

McCollum, the all-too-familiar alternative to Scott's fresh face, is ramping up an ad campaign emphasizing that Scott's hospitals paid a record $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud that occurred while he was there. That virtually guarantees that the tone of the race will disintegrate quickly.

But McCollum can't compete with Scott's millions, and the new poll numbers are going to make it tougher for McCollum to raise money. People want change, but they also want to be with the winner.

"He's walking proof that money talks," says Republican strategist Mac Stipanovich, a McCollum fundraiser. "He's had clear air so far, but that's over, I promise you."

Gov. Rick Scott has a nice ring to it, but what do we know about the guy?

Precious little. His meteoric rise to front-runner status is sure to attract the scrutiny that he has avoided so far.

"No one knows who he is or what he stands for," said Nancy McGowan, a vice president of the Republican Women's Club of Duval County in Jacksonville, where Scott was invited to speak Thursday.

He worked the room at San Jose Country Club a bit stiffly, with an engaging smile and a button-down, no-nonsense style. Pressed for specifics on how he would create jobs, he said he will offer a detailed economic plan soon.

On health care, he says people should be able to choose their plans; insurers should be able to sell across state lines; consumers should enjoy the same insurance-related tax breaks as employers; and people should be rewarded for exercising and living right.

Jacksonville college student Catie Hawker said Scott talked too much about national issues. "I want to know more about what he was going to do," she said.

Businesswoman Jody Sutton liked it that Scott takes responsibility for the fraud on his watch. "He could have passed the buck. He didn't," she said.

Bonnie Sleiman was drawn to Scott because she dislikes McCollum's opposition to the Arizona immigration law.

Tracey Kenney, a financial adviser from St. Augustine, came away impressed with Scott.

"We definitely need a change," she said.

Explaining his surge, Scott said people want a leader who supports the Constitution and free markets.

"They want to believe in the America they grew up in, that if you work hard, you can do well," he said. "I think they're ready for a conservative outsider."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

FAST FACTS

Face to face?

Two days after surging to a double-digit lead in a new poll, Republican candidate for governor Rick Scott wants to debate his opponent, Attorney General Bill McCollum, four times before the Aug. 24 election. Scott's campaign released a letter to McCollum dated Friday. "I think the voters deserve to hear both of us talk unfiltered about our ideas on how to turn Florida around," it says. McCollum spokeswoman Kristy Campbell, who said the campaign had not yet seen Scott's letter, said, "We look forward to debating him in advance of the primary."

Still much to learn about Rick Scott 06/11/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 11, 2010 8:59pm]
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