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Poll gives Rick Scott 13-point lead on Bill McCollum in GOP governor's primary

Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott, who has spent $12.47 million on his race, meets Bonnie Sleiman at Thursday’s meeting of the Republican Women’s Club of Duval County.

STEVE BOUSQUET | Times

Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott, who has spent $12.47 million on his race, meets Bonnie Sleiman at Thursday’s meeting of the Republican Women’s Club of Duval County.

JACKSONVILLE — It's no longer far-fetched: Florida Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Sen. Jeff Greene.

A torrent of personal money is jolting Florida politics as a new poll shows wealthy newcomers Scott and Greene surging after spending millions on TV ad blitzes.

Former health care executive Scott has a 13-point lead over Attorney General Bill McCollum in the Republican primary for governor, and Palm Beach billionaire Greene virtually ties U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.

"It's the power of money in politics,'' marveled Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink, while campaigning in Pinellas County. "These guys came out of nowhere."

A majority of voters in both races say they could change their minds before the Aug. 24 primary, and many remain undecided. But the results add more intrigue to a highly volatile political season and might reflect hostility toward longtime politicians.

"What's significant is that it's not just one candidate, but two candidates following the same formula," said Peter Brown, assistant director of Quinnipiac University's Polling Institute, which conducted the poll. "This is a year in which we know that anti-establishment candidates have done well in other states running against career politicians. That, combined with their TV advertisements, is obviously striking a chord."

Quinnipiac's statewide poll of 814 likely Republican voters shows Scott at 44 percent, McCollum at 31 and 24 percent undecided, with a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.

A poll of 785 Democrats shows Meek leading Greene 29 to 27 percent, with 37 percent undecided, and a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

Both polls were conducted June 2-8.

It's a stunning reversal for the frontrunner McCollum and comes less than two months after Scott entered the race.

Through Wednesday, Scott had spent $12.47 million, compared to McCollum's more than $804,000. A McCollum-aligned committee, the Alliance for America's Future, has spent $1.85 million attacking Scott, and McCollum has committed another $250,000 to radio commercials attacking Scott.

Florida is only now catching up to other states when it comes to multimillionaire candidates. Californians have seen it for years, including now with former eBay CEO Meg Whitman spending more than $70 million of her own money to win Tuesday's Republican gubernatorial primary and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina spending more than $5 million of hers to win the Republican U.S. Senate primary.

"No one can buy an election," Scott said Thursday, while campaigning in Jacksonville. "When you walk into the voting booth, what you're going to say is, 'Which candidate is best for my family?' . . . They want somebody that's run a business before."

Scott — who has opened campaign offices across the state, including in Carrollwood — said the poll numbers show Floridians are hungry for a "conservative outsider" who is "pro-life, pro-jobs, pro-Second Amendment and pro-family."

Scott, 57, is a Missouri native who lives in Naples. He was CEO of Columbia/HCA hospitals, which paid a record $1.7 billion fine to the federal government for Medicare fraud.

Trim and balding, dressed in a Navy blue suit with an American flag on the lapel, Scott spoke for seven minutes to the Republican Women's Club in Duval County, fielded a few questions and departed.

He got a respectful but low-key welcome from about 150 members of the club. He spoke of his humble origins in Kansas City, how he married his high school sweetheart, Ann, at 19, became a lawyer, "built a large hospital company" and created up to 285,000 jobs — all without mentioning Columbia/HCA by name.

"I'm fed up with where the country's going," Scott told the crowd. "We're not following the Constitution. We're spending money we don't have. . . . We can't."

He said he would lessen government regulations on businesses and create jobs, but did not offer specifics.

He said that despite the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it is "not realistic" for Florida to be opposed to oil drilling at least 125 miles off the coast.

McCollum and Meek quickly pounced on the poll as evidence of two flawed businessmen trying to buy their way into office.

McCollum spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said: "It's no surprise (Scott) has skyrocketed in the polls since Floridians are just beginning to learn about his questionable past."

Meek spokesman Adam Sharon said of Greene: "He's using the billion dollars he made on Wall Street betting against middle-class homeowners to buy Florida's Senate seat."

Scott and Greene remain largely unknown to voters: Nearly half of Republicans surveyed said they don't know enough about Scott to say if they like him or not; 64 percent of Democrats said they don't know enough about Greene.

"This is by no means a done deal," Brown said. "You've got two more months until the primary."

McCollum's Hillsborough County grass-roots coordinator, Chris Hart, said Scott's surge isn't surprising, considering his saturation advertising. But he predicted McCollum would prevail in a low-turnout primary dominated by informed voters.

"The fact is, we've got the statewide grass-roots network. You can't buy that," Hart said.

Scott has been blanketing TV airwaves with ads highlighting his support for Arizona's tough new immigration law, which McCollum initially opposed.

The Quinnipiac poll shows nearly 90 percent of Republicans like that law and want Florida to pass a similar version.

Cindy Graves, president of the Florida Federation of Republican Women, said that when Scott veered away from his signature issue of health care when speaking Thursday, "he seemed a little bit vague."

Of the fraud fine against his company, she said: "That's the elephant in the room, isn't it?"

Nancy McGowan, a vice president of the women's club, said many GOP activists were eager to see Scott because they knew virtually nothing about him.

"If people wondered whether he was a real conservative, their questions were probably satisfactorily answered," McGowan said.

Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Poll gives Rick Scott 13-point lead on Bill McCollum in GOP governor's primary 06/10/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 11, 2010 12:51am]

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