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For Gov. Rick Scott, visit to Eustis an act of political necessity

A grouchy editor in Miami once grudgingly allowed me to go on a campaign trip on one condition: "Bring me back an exotic dateline," he barked over the phone.

In other words, the scene-setting place listed in all caps at the start of the story had to be some far-flung locale like Gulfport, Milton or Kissimmee. Fortunately, Florida is blessed with dozens of exotic datelines, and I've visited nearly every one.

But in my 30 years of reporting in this state, it wasn't until this week that I filed a story from Eustis, which is reachable by taking the Belleview exit off I-75, going through downtown Weirsdale and over the Ocklawaha River. It's not far from Mount Dora or Umatilla.

Eustis. That was where Gov. Rick Scott chose to release his first budget recommendations at a rally attended by a thousand tea party activists in a Baptist church hall so big it doubles as a basketball court.

Scott, lots of cheering, flag-waving "patriots," God and country all under one roof in small-town America. It was a clever bit of political packaging, but it seemed a little too contrived and almost Disney-esque in its slickness. Where was Hannity?

Red, white and blue: red-meat rhetoric delivered to an all-white audience by the man in the blue suit, Rick Scott.

He deserves credit for taking such a dense, policy-laden action directly to his constituents, rather than simply talking to the wonks in the state Capitol.

"The goal was to continue to get out," Scott said as he left the church. "That's really the key — just talking to people."

It turns out that for Scott, Eustis was an act of political necessity.

Tea partiers' support was instrumental in his decisive Republican primary victory over Bill McCollum in August that propelled him to power, but the politically inexperienced governor largely neglected them during his two-month transition, and they didn't like it.

Rep. Mike Weinstein of Jacksonville, an early Scott supporter, said: "Since he was elected, there's been somewhat of a concern by the tea party that they're losing a connection to him." Eustis, he said, "was also sort of a payback to the tea party for helping him get elected."

Back in Tallahassee, some felt the tea party gesture was a political blunder by Scott, who won with less than a majority and entered office with the highest negative poll numbers of any modern governor.

Sen. Mike Bennett, a Bradenton Republican, said that instead of broadening his political base, Scott seemed to be doing precisely the opposite.

"He shouldn't have done that," Bennett said. "It sent the wrong message." He said Scott should have shared his budget message "with everybody in the state at the same time, not just the tea party folks."

Senate President Mike Haridopolos saw it differently. "I think that's his base, and he went to his base," he said. "That's what politicians do. The tea party was there when he was down in the polls."

A larger issue, Republican Sen. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey said, is Scott's seeming disdain for public employees that was shared by the tea party crowd.

"Many of those tea party people, who I have great respect for, happen to be teachers or firefighters or have a teacher that's their son or daughter or neighbor, and who's going to be affected by the governor's proposals," Fasano said.

But all that was lost in the euphoria in Eustis.

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

For Gov. Rick Scott, visit to Eustis an act of political necessity 02/11/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 11, 2011 9:57pm]
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