TALLAHASSEE — Supporters of Gov. Rick Scott say that if you liked his first term in office, you'll love his second. But critics say that if Scott is liberated from having to face voters again, he'll revert to the divisiveness that marked his first year in office.
Scott, 61, hopes to make history next month and join Jeb Bush as Florida's only two-term Republican governors. As millions of voters cast mail ballots from Key West to Pensacola, polls show a tight race between Scott and Democrat Charlie Crist, 58.
In pursuit of a second term, Scott promises to pour more money into education, environmental protection, airports and seaports, and to cut taxes by up to $1 billion — a plan that requires approval of the Legislature and voters. He also says his top priority of creating jobs will stay the same.
"We need to make more progress in this being the best place to get a job, because it will be the best place to build a business," Scott said as he cruised across the Panhandle on his "Let's Keep Working" campaign motor coach. "Florida today is positioned to be the worldwide leader in job creation."
Scott allies such as Susie Wiles, who managed his 2010 campaign, expect more of the same.
"I don't expect anything different," said Wiles, who works for Ballard Partners, a Tallahassee lobbying firm. "The reason he ran for governor is so core to who he is that I don't expect much change."
But the governor is not the same political novice who came into office four years ago.
As Scott ramped up his re-election bid, he moved toward the political center. He shed the tea party ties of his first year when he sought a 10 percent school spending cut that became a $1.3 billion reduction, and recast himself as a pro-education champion of higher teacher salaries.
Once a critic of what he called a "bloated" bureaucracy, Scott signed the largest budget in Florida's history in June, and the same governor who last year vetoed a bill to allow undocumented immigrants to get temporary driver's licenses embraced in-state tuition for them this year over the strong opposition of some conservatives in his party.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Democrats are trying to motivate voters by stoking fears that an "unchained" Scott would revert to his earlier ways, reviving controversial first-term ideas such as privatizing prisons and state parks, dismantling public education and purging noncitizens from the voter rolls.
"Without a re-election in his future, he's going to be utterly unconstrained, and that's a big problem," said Dan Gelber, a former Democratic state legislator from Miami Beach and a Crist adviser.
Forecasting Florida's future is always perilous. But the next four years will pose big tests for the state's chief executive, from a reshaping of the state Supreme Court to negotiating a new gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida to a possible rewrite of the Florida Constitution.
In addition, the state will again be a major battleground in the 2016 presidential election — with Bush a possible candidate for the White House.
If Scott wins on Nov. 4, Republican dominance of the executive branch will extend the party's conservative reach for decades, especially in the judiciary. The next governor could replace four of the seven state Supreme Court justices, including all three liberal-leaning appointees of Lawton Chiles, the last Democratic governor.
Scott has expressed a firm belief in appointing judges who share his opposition to judicial activism and "think like me," as he once told a group of black lawmakers.
The next governor also will make 15 appointments to a 37-member commission with the power to put proposed amendments to the state Constitution before voters in 2018. A victory by Scott would ensure that the Constitution Revision Commission would be controlled by conservatives.
"There's a profound possibility that that could be as or more influential than some of his policies," said Bob McClure, president of the James Madison Institute, a conservative think tank.
Another former Democratic governor, Bob Graham, said Scott offered a preview of a second term with his recent decision to reward state Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, an ally and restaurateur with no background in utility regulation, with one of five seats on the powerful Public Service Commission.
"We're playing with live ammunition here," said Graham, who supports Crist. "This choice is not theoretical. It's going to have real and immediate consequences. The issue is whether a job on the PSC is to benefit the aspirations of the utility companies or to represent the public interest."
In a second term, Scott likely would have to reconstruct his senior staff, too.
Speculation is widespread that chief of staff Adam Hollingsworth and legal counsel Pete Antonacci will return to the private sector after the election, and some agency heads will leave. A spokesman for Scott said neither man is planning to resign.
In a second term, Scott also would have to deal with a new cadre of legislative leaders with their own priorities. They will include the continued emergence of state Rep. Richard Corcoran of Pasco County, who is on track to be House speaker in 2016 and whose agenda could clash with Scott's.
Corcoran was an outspoken opponent of the Medicaid expansion that Scott embraced in 2013, and led opposition to it in the House.
"I think in a second term, he'll work much more closely with the Legislature," Corcoran predicted, "and you'll see a lot more 'BHAGs' being proposed than in his first term." BHAGs is Tallahassee-speak for "big, hairy, audacious goals," which was a hallmark of Jeb Bush's two terms in office.
If Scott wins re-election, he will be governor of the most important battleground state in presidential elections, but that could put Scott in a delicate position if Bush, one of the most popular governors in Florida history, seeks the Republican nomination for president in 2016.
Bush would enjoy broad support in the state, but it's no secret that Scott's personal favorite is another governor with White House aspirations: Rick Perry of Texas.
The two have gone fishing together in Destin, and Perry introduced Scott to some big Republican fundraisers in Dallas. Scott and Perry enjoy a good-natured competition over job creation and one of Scott's goals in a second term is seeing Florida leapfrog over Texas in the creation of new jobs.
Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.