TALLAHASSEE — When Democrat Alex Sink fired Miami lobbyist Brian May from her campaign Monday for sending her a message in the midst of her last debate, she lost one of her campaign's top political advisers, and her temper.
As the drama unfolded Tuesday, with Sink offering conflicting answers and her campaign in overdrive, the blunder became a gift-wrapped package for her Republican rival Rick Scott.
Scott spent the first day out of the fray, saying he was surprised by the incident, then let his advisers exploit the gaffe. They cranked out news releases, forwarded video and transcripts to reporters, cut a new radio ad, and went for the jugular, portraying Sink as a cheater and her explanation a lie.
The incident crystallized the relationship Florida's candidates for governor have with their advisers: Sink relies on longtime friends and colleagues but is also quick to dress down someone when a mistake is made; Scott entrusts his fate to an experienced campaign staff he assembled just six months ago.
"I've always believed that you hire the best people you can, check out all that you can, then you follow your gut," Scott said.
Sink and Scott each rely on a small inner circle of advisers for campaign and political counsel.
Sink, Florida's chief financial officer, confers closely with her husband, Bill McBride, her long-time chief of staff Jim Cassady, and a small group of female friends that includes former Education Commissioner Betty Castor. For political advice, Sink also listens to the young aides she has assembled as part of her campaign team, but, while she welcomes their opinion, she doesn't always do as they recommend.
Scott, who has never before run for public office, keeps a close circle of advisers that includes his wife, Anne, and longtime friend and Washington lawyer Enu Mainigi. But most of the political shots are being called by campaign veterans, including Washington pollster and strategist Tony Fabrizio, who has imbued in the campaign the mantra that they are running a different kind of race.
That difference is evident in the sheer size of Scott's political machine, financed mostly with Scott's own money — more than $60 million so far.
Scott's weeklong bus tour of the state that began Tuesday includes Scott and three family members, lieutenant governor candidate Jennifer Carroll, 15 staffers, a luxury motorcoach, a press van, an advance car and two cars with support staff.
Sink, by contrast, has raised $15.4 million in cash and in-kind support and is dependent on the Florida Democratic Party to finance much of her television advertising. She travels with four to six staffers, and her campaign is not underwriting a press van until the last two days.
This is the second time Sink has run for public office. She was elected state chief financial officer in 2006. But she was intimately involved in her husband's unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in 2002, when he ran against incumbent Gov. Jeb Bush.
She says that the most difficult thing about campaigning is running the gantlet of politics and that she has learned to become better at it by asking questions, listening to her advisers, then ultimately making decisions on her own.
"I didn't run for CFO to be a political person; I ran to make things work better," she said.
Scott says he likes to surround himself with people who share his goals but come from different backgrounds. "I have a no-jerk rule," he said. "You can disagree without being disagreeable."
Most Florida voters know Scott only from his 30-second television ads, his tightly focused campaign speeches, and his videotaped depositions in which he appears aloof and unable to recall simple details about his business.
But Scott is no stranger to politics.
In early 2009, he founded a political action group called Conservatives for Patients Rights, or CPR, that joined a web of other interests to fight Obama's health care initiative and the so-called "public option'' — a government-run health insurance plan that failed in Congress. During the Clinton administration, Scott was among the country's most vocal critics of then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's health care plan.
As a gubernatorial candidate, Scott, a former chief executive of the Columbia/HCA health care chain, approached the campaign with the same data-hungry analysis he has used throughout his career.
"I want to benchmark everything I do," Scott explained. "The problem we have today may have always been there, it's how you process problems."
Sink, as the state's chief financial officer and the former head of the Bank of America of Florida, is a methodical decisionmaker who looks at politics like a math major: Everything must add up.
One example: whether or not to accept public campaign financing. For months, Sink contemplated whether to take the taxpayer money allowed to her campaign because she had agreed to limit her campaign spending and had solicited funds from thousands of individual donors.
Sink, who never really wanted to accept the money, went with her gut and turned it down.
Times/Herald reporter Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.