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At Democratic gathering, Rick Scott gets most of the attention

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Forget Barack Obama. The fellow really firing up Florida Democrats is Rick Scott.

On Saturday, Democratic activists who gathered in Broward County for their annual Jefferson-Jackson fundraising gala invoked the name of Florida's unpopular, hard-right governor at least as often as Obama.

"He's our number one supporter. What would we do without him?'' joked Ron Mills, president of the Dolphin Democrats club of South Florida. "You see the energy here? That's thanks to Rick Scott. We didn't have that in 2010."

Alison Burke Morano, a Pasco County resident who is vice chairwoman of the state party, called Scott "a huge motivator for Democrats across the state.''

"I've been telling everybody, 'Stay mad,' '' Morano said. "We're going to have to stay angry and we're going to have work very, very hard."

In addition to helping Obama's re-election prospects in America's biggest battleground state, the backlash against Scott already is generating speculation about who will take him on in 2014.

Two widely expected challengers — former gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink and South Florida state Sen. Jeremy Ring — mingled with party activists Saturday along with two other less certain prospects, state party chairman Rod Smith and former state Sen. Dan Gelber.

"When you have a governor with a 29 percent approval rating, I would imagine that there are a lot of people who will be interested in running,'' said Ring, 40, a wealthy former Yahoo.com executive from Margate, dismissing the notion Democrats would clear the field for Sink as they did in 2010.

Other names, including former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and current Mayors Jack Seiler of Fort Lauderdale and Buddy Dyer of Orlando, get tossed around, but besides Sink there is only one other person with a big statewide footprint.

"Charlie Crist is the wild card in this whole thing," said Democratic consultant Steve Schale, who led Obama's Florida campaign in 2008 and worked for Sink in 2010. "It's hard to say how Democrats would react to Crist switching parties, but if he was thinking about it I think he would find a base of support."

Charlie Crist, the lifelong Republican-turned independent, running as a Democrat for the position he walked away from?

Now a personal injury lawyer and TV pitchman, Crist tells anyone who asks or urges, and many do, that he's happy in private life.

Consider one scenario a number of Democratic strategists see as more than plausible: Crist, still popular outside of conservative Republican circles, endorses Obama and helps his campaign in Florida in 2012. He parlays that good will into another gubernatorial campaign and Democrats desperate to rid Florida of Scott welcome a moderate statewide figure who looks like a winner.

"That would be enormously exciting. He has the statewide name recognition and he's someone who looks out for the people,'' said state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. "The Democratic Party is the big-tent party, and I can't see why they wouldn't embrace Charlie Crist.''

Crist, 54, was vilified by many Republicans when he endorsed the $787 billion stimulus package and embraced the president during a Fort Myers visit in 2009. The White House has not forgotten his help.

"I don't think he did it for the president; he did it for his state. He stepped up and it was a gutsy thing to do," said David Axelrod, Obama's chief political strategist, who said the campaign would welcome Crist's support. "We welcome any and all support and he's someone who the president has regard for."

Scott, a political newcomer with immense baggage who spent more than $70 million of his own money on the campaign, won the governor's race with 48.9 percent of the vote, about 61,000 more votes than Sink.

That Sink could lose to someone who led a company that paid the largest fine for Medicaid fraud in history had plenty of Democrats second-guessing her cautious campaign and candidacy.

On the other hand, she faced an enormous national Republican wave and an opponent who vastly outspent her and still came a whisker away from winning while other Democrats running statewide lost by double digits.

"It was an enormous tsunami and we were outspent two-and-a-half to one," noted Sink, 63, a longtime banking executive and former Florida chief financial officer. "It was a miracle we came as close as we did."

Sink is widely expected to run again in 2014 but said it is too early to made any decision. She is creating a public policy foundation, the Florida Next Foundation, to explore effective ways to grow small businesses and the state's economy. That should give her a platform to keep a high profile before 2014.

Polls suggest Scott is the least popular governor in America, with the latest Quinnipiac University poll finding 57 percent of Florida voters disapproving of his performance. He's toxic with Democrats and independents, and only half of Republicans approve of his performance, which is at least 20 points worse than Govs. Jeb Bush and Crist at this point in their terms.

Former attorney general candidate Gelber, of Miami Beach, likened it to a bad sequel of The Hangover: "Floridians are retracing their steps to figure out how they woke up with a tiger in their bathroom and Lex Luthor as governor."

Spokesmen for the state GOP and governor did not respond to requests for comment.

Scott's image is so bad that prominent Republicans already are whispering and speculating about potential primary challenges. Names mentioned include Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Attorney General Pam Bondi, or Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Fellow Republicans worry that widespread antagonism to Scott could damage them, too, and Democrats heading into the presidential election agree.

In swing states including Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida, Democratic pollster Dave Beattie said, unpopular recently elected Republican governors are sending the message to swing voters that Republicans will overreach.

"My sense is that independent voters are feeling some buyer's remorse from the Florida gubernatorial election, and that could be a factor in 2012," Axelrod said.

Three and a half years is an eternity in politics, and Scott obviously can improve his standing significantly. But some Democrats think a turnaround for Scott will require much more than a staff shakeup or even a significant improvement in the economy.

"When you're in a campaign spending $5 million a week on TV, you can create your truth," Gelber said. "But when you're not in campaign cycle, the truth creates itself. It's very hard to disabuse people of their first impressions and his first impression is horrible. People are seeing him for who he really is."

Still, no Democrat is rushing to make an announcement.

"The Republicans are giving us a marvelous opportunity to broaden the Democratic tent, to broaden our reach," said state party chairman Smith, noting that people regularly encourage him to run. "But the last thing I should concentrate on over the next year and a half is anything other than what I'm doing now and doing the best job I can."

Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

At Democratic gathering, Rick Scott gets most of the attention 06/11/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 11, 2011 10:36pm]
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