FORT MYERS — All four candidates for governor took turns this weekend promoting themselves and fine-tuning themes at a gathering of astute business and civic leaders, with each displaying different strengths and nobody outshining the others.
The four — Republicans Bill McCollum and Rick Scott, Democrat Alex Sink and nonpartisan candidate Lawton "Bud" Chiles III — spoke to Leadership Florida, a networking organization that invited them to its annual meeting here.
It's the first time all four have appeared before the same organization.
They avoided discussion of each other, but their philosophical differences were on stark display: McCollum and Scott called for tax cuts, while Sink described a "crisis of leadership" in Tallahassee and urged more investment in programs for children. Chiles, the son of an iconic former governor and senator, decried a political system polluted by money and partisanship.
Much of the buzz centered on Scott, the wealthy former hospital executive whose $16 million advertising campaign has catapulted him to front-runner status, but about whom little is known.
"Hopefully, you've seen a few of the ads," Scott said as the crowd of about 200 broke into laughter. "I can't go out to dinner anymore. … I get recognized everywhere, which is good and bad."
Pacing across the stage of a ballroom with a ceiling festooned with wedding decorations, Scott recounted his humble origins from a truck driver's son to a lawyer and wealthy businessman — "the most blessed person in the world," he said.
Not once did he mention his involvement with Columbia/HCA and its $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud that could become his political albatross.
Scott said taxes and regulation need to be reduced and it's time for an outsider to take over from the career politicians who have run Florida — none of whom, he said, have taken responsibility for the record unemployment.
"We have to change the kind of people we are electing," he said.
Jobs, education and health care were themes in all four speeches. McCollum and Sink showed a better grasp of public policy than Scott or Chiles.
McCollum, the state's attorney general, called for "dramatic improvement" in Florida schools, but he at times came across as more technocrat than visionary.
The lawyer from suburban Orlando stressed his deep experience in government and cited a need for stronger tourism and agriculture industries and "litigation reform" to cut down on nuisance lawsuits.
He called for a cut in the corporate income tax and other tax cuts to encourage businesses to create high-paying jobs in biotech, high-tech and aerospace. "I think the job of the next governor is going to be to wear a second hat and be the chief economic development officer of this state," McCollum said.
Sink, the state's chief financial officer and a former chair of Leadership Florida, got a resounding ovation Saturday. Ticking off her "business plan" for Florida, she cited the need to create jobs, diversify the economy, improve schools and reform how government operates.
"I will be the first governor in 12 years whose own children graduated from Florida public schools," Sink said.
She did not call for higher taxes, but said "efficiencies" can create hundreds of millions of dollars in savings that can be redirected to education and economic incentives.
She said Florida should be No. 1 in solar and renewable energy, and she called it "criminal' that 800,000 Florida kids remain uninsured despite the work by her and others to expand a state-run health insurance program. And she said Florida spends less on prekindergarten education for 4-year-olds than most states.
McCollum and Scott both defended the state's ban on same-sex couples adopting children. Sink supports lifting the ban and allowing judges to decide.
Chiles, the last to speak, gave a somber speech about a system he said has been hijacked by overly-partisan politicians beholden to special interests instead of the people. It was the same message his father rode to victory as a U.S. senator 40 years ago. He said tax dollars would best be spent by local communities, not by Tallahassee bureaucrats.
"Political parties that used to be about ideals are now about power and control, and people are sick and tired of the head-pounding," he said. "This partisan fighting that's going on in Tallahassee is not adding one job."
Chiles drew his loudest applause when he criticized a state policy of locking up youthful drug and alcohol offenders in a "revolving door" prison system that has a high rate of repeat offenders. "It's the most expensive social program we have," Chiles said.
McCollum and Scott will face off for the Republican nomination Aug. 24, with the victor facing Sink and Chiles in November.
Chiles and Scott are running for office for the first time. Sink was elected chief financial officer in 2006, and McCollum has been in public office for 24 years, including 20 as a member of Congress and the last four as attorney general.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.