DESTIN — There's a fresh face on the campaign trail in Florida's bare-knuckle gubernatorial contest: first lady Ann Scott.
She has spent the summer crisscrossing the state, a photographer in tow. On some days, she reads to children or visits new mothers in the hospital. On others, she makes the hard sell for her husband's re-election over afternoon tea.
She is quick to point out that only some of the events are associated with her husband's campaign. She distributes books to kids, for example, as part of a first-lady initiative known as the Summer Literacy Adventure.
Still, with each stop, she is helping shape Republican Gov. Rick Scott's image with an important group of voters: women.
He could use the assist. A Quinnipiac poll last month put Rick Scott 15 points behind Democratic front-runner Charlie Crist among female voters.
"Scott is in trouble when it comes to the female vote," said Mirya Holman, a professor at Florida Atlantic University who studies gender and politics.
In many ways, Ann Scott stands in contrast to her husband. Whereas Rick Scott comes across as aloof and mechanical, Ann Scott is personable and warm. She speaks with a slight Texas twang, a byproduct of her childhood in Dallas.
She is a businesswoman in her own right, and a multimillionaire. But she still talks about the challenging times, when she and her husband lived in a small Rhode Island apartment and used camping equipment for furniture.
"She's very genuine," said state Rep. Marti Coley, a Marianna Republican. "She connects with people."
Of late, Ann Scott has been bounding from Amelia Island to the Panhandle to South Florida, attending an average of three events each week. Oftentimes, reporters are invited along.
It's a new role for the first lady — and a much higher profile than she's used to.
Four years ago, when her husband was a political unknown running to become Florida's chief executive, Ann Scott tried to avoid the spotlight. She appeared at campaign events, but usually with her husband or mother-in-law, Esther, who died in 2012.
Public appearances made her nervous. She blames a bad experience she had in sixth grade.
"Everyone started laughing at me," she said of the day years ago she was asked to deliver an oral report on current events.
She is now a polished speaker and comfortable in front of large crowds. That hasn't stopped her from mentioning her fear of public speaking when she steps up to a podium.
"I hope y'all will go easy on me," she told the Republican Women of Okaloosa Federated on a recent afternoon.
Her campaign events are carefully planned. She does not take questions, or talk about policy.
"I leave the decisionmaking, the policies, all that, to him," she told the Times/Herald. "If I went out and tried to talk about what he stands for, I might say something wrong, and he would have to answer for it."
Instead, she shares her story.
At the Okaloosa event — a gathering at an upscale, waterside space in Destin where coffee, tea and chocolate truffles were served — she spoke about meeting her future husband in the library of their high school. They married two years later.
Ann Scott talked about her two daughters and three grandsons, and her passion for reading and helping foster children.
Then, she got to campaigning.
"Under Rick's leadership, Florida businesses have added over 620,000 jobs …," she said. "The state's unemployment rate has dropped from 11.1 percent when Rick took office to just under the national rate of 6.2 percent."
She received a standing ovation.
"She's very articulate," said Cindy Frakes, an attendee who is running for re-election to the Okaloosa County School Board. "She's helping to get the message out that the economy in Florida has really turned around."
Does sending a female surrogate on the campaign trail translate into votes from women? Holman, the FAU professor, said the research is inconclusive.
"The reality is, female voters consistently vote for the more liberal candidate," she said.
But Holman said the Scott campaign would get a definite boost if Republican women turned out to the polls.
This summer isn't the only time Ann Scott has traveled around the state. As first lady, she visited schools in each of Florida's 67 counties and promoted reading at summer camps. But her schedule has certainly ramped up in recent weeks.
It makes this campaign season different from the last one, Rick Scott said.
"The big difference is that last time, she traveled with me most of the time and she didn't go off on her own," he said. "She did some, but not very much. This time, she's mostly on her own."
The governor said he is proud of his wife. "This is a good job for her," he said.
There are some drawbacks.
"We don't get to see each other as much, and we like to be together," Ann Scott said. "The staff says he is so much happier when I'm on the campaign trail with him."
The pace can also be exhausting.
Still, Ann Scott said she feels she is finally feeling comfortable in her political role — and that alone gives her energy.
"I have loved doing it this time," she said.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected]