LAKE BUENA VISTA — Gov. Rick Scott threw himself a celebration Tuesday, showing off Florida's rebounding economy and receiving lavish praise from most of the top Republicans running for president.
"This is his conference and anything I can do to suck up to him and his donors, by God, I'm going to do," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said at the outset of his remarks, joking, but not really.
Seven presidential hopefuls spoke at Scott's Economic Growth Summit held at a Disney hotel, the governor's name in massive letters on the stage backdrop. "Today it's all about jobs," he said.
Despite the strain of self-aggrandizing, Scott's event did manage to bring a focus to the economy. The issue has not gotten much attention as candidates have competed to be the sharpest critic of President Barack Obama's policies while offering few detailed proposals of their own.
A Gallup Poll released last month showed 86 percent of Americans say the economy will be extremely or very important to their vote in 2016, topping every other issue.
With Sen. Marco Rubio in Washington due to a vote over the National Security Agency's data collection program — he appeared before the group in a recorded video and talked of reducing the corporate tax rate — the stage was left to current and former governors.
One by one — Huckabee, Jeb Bush of Florida, Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rick Perry of Texas — played up their executive experience in contrast to senators such as Rubio and Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas.
The Republican contenders largely stuck to broad themes of cutting taxes and business regulation, though some delved into specifics. Huckabee said Americans should be able to purchase cheaper prescription drugs from Canada, for example, a popular idea in Florida. And he pitched a "fair tax," which would create a national sales tax of sorts and eliminate the need for the "biggest bully in America" — the Internal Revenue Service.
Christie proposed trimming Social Security benefits for the wealthy and using that money to pay for tax cuts. "We are being consumed by the entitlement beast," he said, portraying himself as brave enough to talk about a sacred program.
The daylong event showed off the styles, but there was little disagreement or attention-grabbing moments. Some of that owed to the setting; the crowd was mostly Republican business leaders, not grass roots activists.
Jindal said other presidential cattle calls have only informed voters that Republicans are against the Islamic State or abortion and for Ronald Reagan, and he thanked Scott for injecting substance into the debate.
"In terms of pandering to my host," Jindal added, "that may be a little more difficult to do it subtly, so I'll just say this: If I were elected president of the United States, I would turn around America's economy the same way Rick Scott has turned around the state of Florida."
Jindal said Scott is right to oppose an expansion of Medicaid. But as Scott was feted, tensions were building in Tallahassee, where the Legislature is in a special session to deal with a budget crisis the Senate wants to solve by accepting federal Medicaid money.
Asked by a reporter if he should be trying to work out the budget, Scott replied, "What I'm doing here today is making sure people know what we've done in our state. It helps promote our state. It promotes more job growth in our state."
Candidates are eager to show affinity for Scott and Florida (Walker named off all the places he had visited) as the state is a crucial battleground that yields 29 electoral votes.
There's some question how many candidates will compete in the GOP primary next March 15, given home state figures Rubio and Bush. Scott, who is not likely to endorse, encouraged them all to campaign.
Walker sought to walk back an earlier suggestion that he would skip the Florida primary. "If I didn't think I could compete, I wouldn't be here today," he told reporters.
Perry, who is expected to formally announce his campaign Thursday, took what appeared to be an implicit shot at Rubio when he spoke of a hypothetical airplane pilot from Miami who "gives an incredible speech, a man can have you on the edge of your seat with excitement" about the mechanics of flight but has little actual flying experience.
"That's not who I really want," Perry said, who is now out of office but spent the bulk of his speech talking about his job growth accomplishments in Texas.
Bush was the last speaker and the crowd favorite. He was the only candidate who called for fixing immigration laws — "for crying out loud" — as a way to grow the economy. Bush also dwelled on his eight years as governor, boasting about billions in tax cuts and budget vetoes.
Echoing others, Bush said many Americans continue to feel left out of the economic recovery and noted the median income is down since the end of the recession. "No wonder people think we're headed on the wrong track."
In an interview with Fox News afterward, Bush said his father, former President George H.W. Bush, was wrong to once call Reagan's tax reform "voodoo economics."
"So there's another example of Jeb having a disagreement with a family member I love a lot," Bush said. "He was wrong about that."
A swarm of reporters surrounded Bush when he was finished with the TV interview and asked him questions in English in Spanish. One reporter brought up Rubio's earlier comments about "outdated leaders," which the 44-year-old Rubio uses to draw a generational contrast.
"It's kind of hard to imagine that my good friend Marco would be critical of his good friend Jeb," said Bush, 62.
Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.