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Gov. Scott hits campaign trail in rural, GOP-voting Panhandle

Gov. Rick Scott’s campaign theme is that “everybody should be a Republican.”

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Gov. Rick Scott’s campaign theme is that “everybody should be a Republican.”

GRACEVILLE — Gov. Rick Scott chose an unusual location to pitch his campaign theme that "everybody should be a Republican."

Many who were listening were Democrats.

The place is Graceville, a North Florida town where folks still call themselves Democrats in part because their ancestors did, but they vote Republican in statewide elections. Scott wants to make sure they do again in 2014.

On Sunday afternoon, rain was coming down in sheets, but that didn't stop 100 people from gathering at the Circle Grill to shake Scott's hand and watch him practice his re-election campaign pitch.

"There's nobody in the state who should not be a Republican," Scott said, from small business owners to newly arrived immigrants reaping the benefits of Republicanism. "But if we don't tell our story, it's our fault if everybody doesn't vote our way."

It's difficult to find evidence of an economic rebound in Graceville's faded downtown.

The state government that Scott is so proud of shrinking or privatizing is the lifeblood of the local economy, especially the prison system.

Still, this was a different Scott from the one who came through the Panhandle three years ago promising to turn Florida around, the rich outsider crusading against the Republican machine and its career politicians.

Dressed in jeans and a checkered shirt, Scott worked the room as his chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, looked on from a distance.

The governor took credit for Florida's economic revival, emphasizing the drop in debt and unemployment rate that helped provide money for schools and the first state worker pay raise in seven years.

Scott showed an advantage of incumbency, introducing a pair of Republican Party operatives to the crowd.

"I think he's doing a good job," said Tommy Williams, a funeral director, Graceville councilman and, yes, a Democrat. "There comes a time when you've got to do some cutting, and he was man enough to do it."

Brushing off the raindrops, Rep. Marti Coley, Senate President Don Gaetz and his son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, took turns singing Scott's praises, with the younger Gaetz stressing Scott as "pro-life" and a supporter of gun rights.

They grow peanuts in historic Graceville (pop. 2,300), a few twists and turns south of the Alabama line, and roadside stands sell them hot boiled in paper bags. It's a town where the same drug store has been open since 1907, where folks are as likely to root for the Crimson Tide as for the 'Noles or Gators. The nearby town of Cottondale is home to Heaven's Way Biker Church.

Democrats outnumber Republicans two-to-one in Jackson County, but Scott beat Democrat Alex Sink here by a few hundred votes in 2010, and Mitt Romney trounced President Barack Obama last fall.

In the county's long history, not one Republican has won countywide office, a fact confirmed by Supervisor of Elections Sylvia Stephens.

Clint Pate, the county GOP chairman, hopes to make history and win a county commission seat this fall. Sizing up Scott's chances of winning a second term, Pate said: "There's mixed reactions, but most of what I hear is that the man is doing what he said he would do."

As she headed back out into the rain, Rep. Coley said people in Graceville may be registered as Democrats, "but they believe Republican."

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Gov. Scott hits campaign trail in rural, GOP-voting Panhandle 07/08/13 [Last modified: Monday, July 8, 2013 9:52pm]
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