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Can Florida Gov. Rick Scott's policy shifts soften his public image?

From left, Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, Panama City Mayor Scott Clemons and Gov. Rick Scott tour downtown Panama City on Tuesday. Scott spent most of the day on Tuesday in Panama City and visited businesses during a trip through the Panhandle.

Associated Press

From left, Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, Panama City Mayor Scott Clemons and Gov. Rick Scott tour downtown Panama City on Tuesday. Scott spent most of the day on Tuesday in Panama City and visited businesses during a trip through the Panhandle.

PANAMA CITY, Fla. — On the same day last week that Gov. Rick Scott ripped up his order to cut care for disabled Floridians, he told Congress that, despite his opposition, he would help create a database intended to crack down on the state's prescription drug crisis.

A day earlier, Scott sold his majority share in Solantic, a chain of urgent-care clinics he founded, after questions were raised about whether the business stood to benefit from his health care agenda.

On Wednesday he wrapped up a two-day tour of the Panhandle. The intent was to highlight the region a year after the BP oil spill, but it was also the first time the well-traveled, media-shy governor invited the capital press corps to tag along.

The rapid succession of shifts from Scott come after a poll two weeks ago that showed the more Floridians learn about the new governor, the less they like.

"Virtually everybody in Florida seems to have some hostility for him," said Tom Slade, a former chief of the Florida Republican Party and the co-chairman of Scott's campaign. "But these are some big steps in the right direction."

Scott, 58, disputed any attempt to rehab his image and quickly changed the subject to the state budget, his top priority.

"I've said all along we're going to reduce the size of government, the cost of government, and we're going to reduce taxes," Scott said. "We're going to get the state back to work, and that's my whole focus."

While Scott's broad goals for the budget have not changed, he has retooled the specifics. Most notably, Scott reduced by half the size of the tax cut he promised from the campaign trail.

Scott's staff chalks up the change as a negotiation tactic with the Legislature, one group where Scott has not eased from his hard-charging conservatism.

In his quest to cut taxes on businesses and property owners, Scott used his weekly radio address Friday to imply he would veto a budget unless it reduces the size of government and cuts taxes.

"I will not compromise on these principles," he said.

Scott took his fight last weekend to the tea party, the conservative movement he credits for his election victory.

At the First Coast Tea Party in Jacksonville on Friday, Scott told the audience to "call, call, call" lawmakers and urge them to pass his budget. Scott told the tea party to tell the Republican-controlled Legislature to "stop raising our taxes. Stop regulating our lives."

On Saturday, Scott acknowledged the weight of public opinion during a tea party rally in St. Augustine when he also urged the audience to pressure lawmakers to approve the tax cuts.

"You really can do something with your e-mails and phone calls," Scott said.

Scott offered this script to use against lawmakers: "You said in your campaign what you were going to do and now you're doing just the opposite because some special interest, some lobbyist has come in and sold you a bill of goods."

But using the bully pulpit to harp against lawmakers can also help boost poll ratings, Slade said. A majority of Floridians have disapproved of the state Legislature for at least two consecutive years, according to Quinnipiac University polls.

"There's been some improvement," Slade of Scott, who was a hospital executive and venture capitalist before running for office.

"He is conducting himself as governor like he would as a hard-nosed corporate executive," Slade said. "I have never seen that work real well for a political office holder."

Manny Maroño, mayor of Sweetwater in Miami-Dade County, said Scott has been criticized for "bold changes."

"He'll make mistakes, but his biggest trait is that he's genuine," said Maroño, one of Scott's earlier supporters. Scott recently appointed him to the Florida Transportation Commission.

"He hasn't forgotten where he comes from and I think people can identify with that."

While Scott appears stiff and nervous at times in the Capitol, he was earnest and loose throughout the Panhandle trip, talking about his family with reporters and trading good-natured jabs with Florida Cabinet members over a fishing competition they had to promote tourism.

In downtown Panama City, Scott asked a police officer if he ever fell off his Segway. At C & G Sporting Goods, Scott spotted an alligator's head on display and wondered if the reptile had been killed with a spear. He posed for pictures holding a $210 glass vase he bought for his wife for the 39th anniversary they celebrated Wednesday.

But while he escaped the grind of the legislative session back in Tallahassee, Scott couldn't dodge his detractors.

In Pensacola, Scott was greeted by a handful of protesters, including AFL-CIO member Gabrielle Wilson, 48, who said Scott's conservative policies do not represent the majority of Floridians.

"His performance has been frightening, to say the least," she said.

Michael C. Bender can be reached at mbender@sptimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.

Can Florida Gov. Rick Scott's policy shifts soften his public image? 04/20/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 20, 2011 11:17pm]
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