TAMPA — A day at the deep-fried Florida State Fair on Thursday gave Gov. Rick Scott an opportunity to rework his deeply troubled image as he doggedly takes aim at a 2014 re-election campaign.
Like his state, Scott is trying hard to rebound. He's using self-promotion to try to prove his skeptics wrong and hoping people focus on that, not his poor job-approval poll numbers.
"Know what's so neat about our state? We have so much history," Scott said after a tour of fair exhibits. "We just need to learn to brag about it a little bit more."
A crowd of more than 700 packed the main hall for the Governor's Day Luncheon, where Scott saluted a military hero, Paul Cuzzupe of Seffner, who was killed in Afghanistan, and unveiled a new tourism TV ad, a rebranding effort called "Must be the Sunshine." The spot debuts in Detroit during Sunday's Grammy Awards telecast.
An upbeat Scott praised everyone in sight for "doing a great job," from the state's chief tourism promoter to Hillsborough school superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
Scott even singled out Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat sitting at the head table, for the region's resurgence, as Buckhorn waved to the crowd.
But Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, unofficial emcee of the farm-friendly fair, had the crowd laughing when he mentioned that a batch of Hostess Twinkies had been procured from the bankrupt bakery.
"It's for history's sake that you must buy a deep-fried Twinkie," Putnam said.
Scott was casually dressed for a day spent around cattle and corn dogs, wearing a blue shirt emblazoned with his name and the state seal. His black cowboy boots came in handy, and he made sure to shake the hand of the guy holding the shovel in the cattle pen.
While First Lady Ann Scott read to children at the fair's popular "Cracker Country" exhibit, Scott worked the garish midway on the fair's opening day.
He posed for pictures alongside a prized heifer, shook the hand of a proud Plant City boy clutching a livestock award and toted his 15-month-old grandson, Auguste, around.
"It's almost like shaking a president's hand," said 9-year-old Aidan Vaughan, clutching his gold trophy and a blue ribbon.
To give the day an air of officialdom, Scott and the three elected Cabinet members held a formal meeting.
The agenda was as thin as a funnel cake, but featured briefings from real estate and workforce experts, who cited steady improvement in the housing and job markets, especially in Tampa Bay, which they said is outpacing the state as a whole.
"Folks are now coming back to Florida," said John Tuccillo, chief economist for the Florida Association of Realtors, who said job growth helps the housing market, which encourages construction, which creates more jobs.
Their optimistic assessment of Florida's future dovetailed perfectly with Scott's own message. Lately Scott has hammered home the theme that things are markedly better than in "the four years before I took office" — a blunt reference to the record of former Gov. Charlie Crist, who may challenge Scott in 2014.
Unfortunately for Scott, his message can get muffled. He was upstaged by the telegenic Attorney General Pam Bondi, who again hugged an adorable dog needing a loving home, and Putnam, who is effortlessly witty.
"It is so cool to be 'carny-in-chief,' " Putnam said during a live morning shot on WTVT-Fox 13, as they ceremonially flipped a switch to light the midway.
The best Scott could muster: "We've got the No. 1 fair. Everything is better in Florida."
Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater both said they won't seek the Republican nomination for governor against Scott next year.
Scott would not directly comment on a Politico report that he's prepared to raise $100 million on his re-election campaign, and Atwater said the economic revival helps Scott tremendously.
"Jobs are returning and economic prosperity is showing its face again," Atwater said.
Asked if the GOP leadership might seek a new candidate if Scott's poll numbers don't recover, Putnam paused for a full five seconds and said: "I continue to believe that a primary challenge is highly unlikely."