TALLAHASSEE — Eighteen months into his first political job, Florida Gov. Rick Scott has mastered one thing: the art of the perpetual campaign.
He has a political consultant and media strategist on retainer and speed dial. The Republican Party has run statewide television ads and hired a company to regularly update his Facebook page. He has warmed to the media, become adept at his talking points, learned to deflect tough questions and passed the most important test in Florida politics: showing that he can raise money for his re-election, $3.7 million so far.
The former health care CEO is still awkward on camera, so his advisers have steered him to friendly, conservative talk-radio shows where he spends many early mornings as a regular call-in guest. The result: He has polished his patter.
"We know there are at least 100 noncitizens registered to vote and at least 50 of them voted in past elections,'' Scott succinctly told Bill Bennett on June 14 on Townhall Radio about the results of his push to purge noncitizens from the voting rolls. "That's a crime!"
The issue earned him face time on network television shows and won the support of 60 percent of Florida voters, according to a Quinnipiac poll released last week.
But every campaign must run on a record, and that's where the governor's carefully crafted image gets wobbly.
Scott has stopped touting the state's job creation and instead brags that "we've had the biggest drop in unemployment of any state in the last 18 months."
The statement implies that Floridians have gone back to work at a faster pace than the rest of the nation, but the state's top economists note that 75 percent of the drop is due to people dropping out of the labor force and no longer being counted among the unemployed.
Other contradictions abound. The governor vowed to make education a priority, then signed the state budget that cut $300 million from universities and included a spending plan that assumed a 15 percent tuition increase and the creation of a 12th university. Last week he then urged the Board of Governors to make Florida "No. 1 in affordability" and reject the tuition hikes. It didn't.
The governor has promised to keep the cost of living down for Floridians but has accepted $250,000 in campaign cash from Florida Power & Light Co., which wants to raise electric rates for its 4.5 million customers.
Scott campaigned on being a Tallahassee outsider, then hired a longtime insider to be his chief of staff. When conflicts emerged after a series of Times/Herald reports detailed how his chief of staff, Steve MacNamara, steered contracts and jobs to friends, the governor called him into his office and asked him to resign earlier than planned. He let him stay on the job until July 1, but while the governor was out of Tallahassee on overseas trips and touring the state, MacNamara's deputy, Jenn Ungru, told the Department of Juvenile Justice to give another company a contract advantage on a program for at-risk youth.
The connection? The lobbyist for the company, Evidence Based Associates, is close friends with MacNamara's former boss, Senate President Mike Haridopolos. Scott's communications director defended the decision, saying the governor's office was only following the wishes of the Legislature, but the agency now is seeking clarification from lawmakers.
"Everything's a learning curve, and he has had to be a quick learner,'' said Tony Fabrizio, the governor's political consultant and pollster.
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Scott, 59, has indicated he has been willing to change his political tune on some of the issues he embraced before having all the facts. He campaigned on a promise to require private employers to use the federal E-Verify system to validate immigration status, for example, a position that is threatening to Florida's powerful agricultural industries. This month, Scott backed off that campaign pledge.
"I don't want to put Florida businesses at a competitive disadvantage,'' he said Wednesday.
Scott's first-year budget called for a cut of more than $1 billion to education, but this year he successfully pushed to restore the money. The reason, he told people, is he listened to parents and business leaders as he traveled the state.
The governor's inexperience and aw-shucks demeanor has also made him prone to gaffes.
On an economic development trip to Spain in May, the governor's briefing papers described how Scott's wife, Ann, should "avoid wearing white clothing" when visiting the king and queen.
It didn't include advice to steer clear of small talk about the king's expensive elephant hunt, which got him in hot water as Spain's economy struggles. Scott asked about it and the faux pas made Florida's governor the joke of late-night television on two continents.
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Scott's image-crafting also has done little to help him in the polls, and made him damaged goods on the campaign trail. He has not been invited onto GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's campaign bus, and a recent Public Policy Poll of likely voters showed that even little-known state Sen. Nan Rich, a Democrat from Weston, could beat Scott if the election for governor were held today.
The Quinnipiac poll that showed voters liked Scott's policy on purging the voter rolls also showed the public doesn't like the job he's doing. His approval ratings, hovering at 39 percent, remain among the worst in state history.
"The problem is, he just can't connect well with people,'' said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor. "He's personable enough, but he struggles in front of a television camera and, for the casual voter who votes every four years, television is king."
Fabrizio, Scott's consultant and pollster, dismisses the polls as irrelevant.
"The poll numbers functionally mean nothing. It's not going to affect his agenda," Fabrizio said, because Republicans will control Florida government no matter what happens on Election Day.
He concedes, however, that Scott was damaged his first year in office, when he and the Republican Legislature pursued a series of controversial issues — from lowering the state contribution to employee pensions to teacher merit pay and election reform — and "the narrative got away."
"The opposition was able to define those issues before the governor's office was able to,'' Fabrizio said. Scott's scaled-down agenda last session showed focus and "his numbers have rebounded."
MacManus predicted Scott will have television time this election season — just not the kind of time he wants. "Democratic candidates will use him in a negative way in their ads, that's for sure,'' she said.
Democrats are watching. They have counted 53 visits by Romney to the state — and not one has included the governor. They note that the Republican Party spent $1 million on television ads and the governor's numbers are still low.
"Voters don't like him, Republicans won't campaign with him, and he's hurting the GOP up and down the ticket," said Brannon Jordan, spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Florida.
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This summer, Florida will play host to the Republican National Convention, the first national political convention in the state since both parties held theirs in Miami Beach in 1972. But the governor has not been promised a prime-time role.
"What we're using him for is kind of unique,'' said Al Austin, the chairman of the 2012 convention host committee. The governor will have an audience of chief executives and business leaders from other states at an economic summit being organized in tandem with the convention. "We're giving him the opportunity to get in front of a lot of people."
Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida's Institute for Economic Competitiveness, believes that networking and company recruitment is about all the governor can do to influence Florida's economy.
"Governors, upon being sworn in, should be given a little laminated copy of the Serenity Prayer,'' he said, referring to the Reinhold Niebuhr prayer that seeks "serenity to accept the things I cannot change."
"All Florida can do is grease the skids," he said. That includes "going on trade missions and trying to establish these relationships when the recovery does finally gain some momentum.''
Scott has been on trade missions to Brazil, Canada, Panama, Israel and Spain. Next month he heads to England and later this year to Colombia. Those who accompanied Scott on the trip to Spain gave him kudos, saying they met with companies that see the United States as a safer place to do business and consider Florida a prime market.
"The governor was sharp, on point and charming," said state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican who was on the trip and predicted it will result in public-private partnerships in Florida in the coming year. "I was very impressed with the governor, and the governor and I have had our differences, so I'm not easily impressed."
Fabrizio, the campaign consultant, is already preparing the talking points for the perpetual campaign. He compares Scott's unemployment numbers to those of potential challengers — former Gov. Charlie Crist, former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Rich.
"When Sink and Crist left office, unemployment was at 11.2 percent,'' he said. "Crist signed a tax increase into law."
Fabrizio also notes that Scott has plenty of time until he faces re-election to compare himself to challengers: "Two and a half years is an eternity in Florida.''
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected]erald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.