TALLAHASSEE — Eighteen months ago, as Florida's newly elected Democratic chief financial officer, Alex Sink was clear: Her political ambition didn't include the 2010 governor's race.
But that's not so clear anymore. Recent clashes with Gov. Charlie Crist over offshore drilling and the state's hurricane risk have raised her profile. And a recent poll suggests she could be positioned for a high-profile campaign, perhaps for the U.S. Senate.
"I never say never," Sink said last week, adding that she could be very happy remaining CFO for another term. "I'll have to make a decision after the first of the year about what I'm doing next."
Several months ago, such a run seemed improbable. As the state's top financial watchdog, the 60-year-old banker and political newcomer from Thonotosassa appeared largely content to focus on the state's bottom line.
Plus she's not known for taking political risks or overt partisanship. While U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and her husband, former gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride, endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton, Sink remained neutral until Clinton dropped out. Then she endorsed Sen. Barack Obama.
But Sink's been raising her profile in the past six months, and the tenor of her relationship with Crist has changed. Amid a tanking economy, continuing frustration about property insurance and rampant speculation that Crist might be on the vice presidential ticket, Sink is being more coy about her ambition.
Many Republicans consider her tough to beat because of her business acumen.
"It would not surprise me at all to see her as a future governor or United States senator," said Tom Slade, former chairman of the state Republican Party. "She has a comprehensive understanding of the numbers that run through government and that's unique for politics."
A recent automated Public Policy poll of 732 likely Florida voters found Sink beating Republican U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez in a matchup, 37 to 31 percent, (32 percent were undecided).
But Sink could have a long way to go. A different poll by Quinnipiac University gave her just a 33 percent job approval rating in a survey of 1,625 likely Florida voters. That's far behind Crist's 61 percent and Attorney General Bill McCollum's 52 percent.
Democratic pollster Jim Kitchens said Sink's problem is name recognition. Unlike veteran politician McCollum, this is Sink's first political stint. And her job isn't as high profile as attorney general or governor.
"The accounting part of government is not all that exciting, it's not unusual, unless there's some big controversy, for name recognition to fade a bit for cabinet positions," Kitchens said. "The worst thing she can do is to get out there and say something and make a big mistake ... she's smarter to be more cautious than more aggressive."
For most of her political tenure, Sink has been cautious, keeping clashes with Crist polite and philosophical. The two largely agreed on land conservation and climate change matters.
Sink found a willing ally in Crist when she offered former Comptroller Bob Milligan, her consumer advocate and a Republican, to take charge of the State Board of Administration after one of its investment funds lost millions for local governments.
But last month, Sink called a news conference to blast Crist's change of heart about opening parts of the gulf to oil drilling. She avoided citing the governor by name but pointedly quipped, "We can't be ruled by polls." She followed up with a national television appearance, only her third since taking office.
Sink said she felt moved to offer a counterpoint on the behalf of Floridians. "Hey wait a minute. He's one person. He's one public official. I'm another statewide elected official who heard a lot about this when I was out campaigning, and I'm presenting the countervailing opinion that this is not the right thing to do in Florida," Sink said. "That's what leadership is about, is to say, 'Not everybody thinks this way."
But friction with the governor had actually started, in a small way, earlier in the year.
The two disagreed in February when Sink wanted to pay more to hire an experienced candidate to lead the state's technology efforts. Crist balked at the price, stalling the hire. Sink argued they needed the experience to avoid debacles, such as a previous, $89-million failure to modernize the accounting system.
But even more noticeable was Sink's push during the 2008 Legislature to reduce the state's exposure to reimbursement of insurers after a catastrophic hurricane.
"She was much more involved this session, than last session," said insurance lobbyist Nick Iarossi.
Sink pushed hard this year to reduce the amount of "reinsurance" the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund would sell. She said the risk, approved by lawmakers in 2007 with Crist's blessing, kept her awake at nights.
She popped into legislative committees to tout her plan, which analysts' predicted would raise rates anywhere from 11/2 percent to 8 percent (because insurers would buy more expensive reinsurance on the private market.) That was unpalatable to many lawmakers, particularly for the incoming Republican Senate president who was facing a tough re-election this fall.
But her message was heard. Two weeks ago, she, Crist and McCollum, sitting as the State Board of Administration, agreed to spend $224-million on a contract to insure the state has access to a loan if it needs to cover more than $25-billion in hurricane damages. It was a de facto admission that the state's insurance system, touted by Crist as keeping rates lower, was overexposed — though Crist was clear to say he wasn't concerned.
However, when it came to deciding whether Floridians should pay the $224-million now or later, Sink lost. She and McCollum said let's pay now. Crist said pay later. Crist won.