Rick Scott for president in 2012?
Absurd as it sounds, people who have talked to Florida's tea party governor about the Republican presidential field are convinced Scott has a bid lurking in the back of his mind.
"I'm not running for president,'' Scott declared the other day.
Probably he won't.
But let's say the field of Republican candidates still looks muddled and uninspiring come November. Let's say no one has managed to persuade Jeb Bush or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to get in the race. Let's say fed-up tea party activists still dominate the GOP primary electorate and show no enthusiasm for the "electable" Mitt Romneys, Tim Pawlentys and Jon Huntsmans of the world.
Enter Rick Scott, fresh off a year of slashing spending and regulation in Florida, and of infuriating moderate Republicans, independents, Democrats and newspaper editorial writers. By then a proven, uncompromising antigovernment crusader, he may be the best sell among Republican primary voters in these turbulent times.
Nobody will talk publicly about a potential presidential bid by Scott except Florida Democrats looking for avenues to attack him. But it has been the source of considerable speculation among prominent Florida Republicans who have talked to him or simply watched his first five months in office.
Scott has urged Republican fundraisers in Florida to stay on the sidelines as long as possible, but two top campaign aides, former campaign manager Susie Wiles and external affairs director Spencer Geissinger, are working on Huntsman's potential presidential campaign.
So Scott is hardly pressing ahead with an imminent run, more like keeping options open should the opportunity present itself.
Any normal politician would recognize the ludicrousness. One of the nation's most unpopular governors, not even a full, rocky year into the job, running for president?
Remember, though, Scott is no normal politician. A lot of people thought it nuts for a fellow known mainly for running a company that paid the biggest Medicare fraud fines ever to think he could win statewide office — in Florida.
Scott pulled it off, though it took spending more than $70 million of his own money. That was only about one-third of his net worth last year, so he still has plenty to self-finance a formidable campaign operation in early primary and caucus states.
Another consideration: Scott often appears to care much more about his perception in national circles than in Florida.
He appears constantly on Fox News. He'll show up for the opening of an envelope in Washington if it involves hobnobbing with Beltway celebs. He caught the political bug founding Conservatives for Patients' Rights, a group to combat health care reform, and constantly frames issues in a national context. Barack Obama was more of a foil in his gubernatorial campaign than Democrat Alex Sink, and he still frequently criticizes the president by name.
"I hope everybody understands this is a fight to turn our country around,'' the governor told Republicans in Tampa on Saturday.
Not everybody thinks the idea of President Rick Scott is far-fetched.
"I know Rick, and he's as serious as a heart attack. The very idea he would send a message of shooting down that high-speed rail project is exactly the type of message that Scott Walker sent in Wisconsin and that Chris Christie has sent in New Jersey,'' Andrew Breitbart, the conservative provocateur, activist and website developer, said in a Political Connections interview airing Sunday on Bay News 9.
Breitbart, a Matt Drudge protegee, doesn't even think 2012 is too soon for Scott.
"It's a free-for-all,'' he said. "The person who taps into the zeitgeist at the moment could run away with it."
There are enormous hurdles to Scott winning the nomination, let alone a general election. He may be a true-blue arch conservative, but he's no blunt-talking Jeb Bush or Chris Christie. He's amiable, even humble in person, but he's skittish with the press and almost never veers away from banal sound bites.
That is probably at least partly a function of having to campaign for governor under the cloud of his former company having been fined $1.7 billion for Medicare fraud under his watch. Asked over and over on the trail what he knew, Scott was positively robotic in his answers.
"Columbia/HCA made mistakes, and I take responsibility for what happened with it,'' he said again and again. To this day his words are repetitive talking points.
Scott has made clear that he sees the grass roots tea party movement as far more potent a political force than the political establishment. There's no sign he has any understanding of a presidential campaign, however.
The tea party won't decide the Iowa caucuses the way county-by-county organizing will. And he's not exactly a great fit for New Hampshire, where independents and Democrats can cross over to vote in the Republican primary.
And, at this point he would be hard-pressed to win Florida.
As much as Scott insists it's nowhere on his radar, some of his allies suspect he sees a last-minute 2012 presidential bid as a viable option. If so, he's delusional.
But don't think for a minute that Scott is not also keeping an eye on 2016.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]