It's way too early to count out Rick Scott for a second term. • His poll numbers are stubbornly bleak — only one in three voters say he deserves a second term — and despite plenty of coaching, he still displays the natural charm and warmth of an automaton. • But 77 weeks before Election Day, Democrats lack a consensus candidate, Scott is methodically raising money for his re-election and every day the political landscape improves for him as Florida's economy perks up.
"It's working" is the governor's mantra, and whether credit belongs to Scott's policies, the White House or inevitable economic cycles, Florida's economy is rebounding under Scott's leadership.
"What Gov. Scott has this time that he didn't have before is a record, and it's a record of enormous success. Anybody that wants to be challenger should take a look at that record," said Republican consultant Susie Wiles of Jacksonville, who managed Scott's 2010 campaign. "If somebody thinks that Rick Scott won't have time, energy and resources to be re-elected, they're making an error in judgment."
The political rookie ran for governor promising to get Florida back to work, and since he took office the state has added nearly 300,000 jobs, and the unemployment rate has fallen to its lowest level since 2008, 7.5 percent.
Four years ago, Scott was a controversial stranger to Florida voters and a virtual pariah to the GOP establishment that overwhelmingly backed then-Attorney General Bill McCollum. Even finding operatives willing to work for him, let alone raise money, was a struggle.
Today, Scott is the GOP establishment, and rather than having to create a campaign apparatus from square one, he has the GOP party machine behind him.
His campaign operation is unlikely to ramp up any time soon, because it doesn't need to. He can court voters far more effectively as a governor criss-crossing the state and doing his job than as a candidate.
Last week, Scott barnstormed major TV markets across Florida, holding pep rallies to tout $480 million in teacher pay raises passed in the latest state budget while casting himself as a champion of public schools.
"Thank you, Gov. Scott!" dozens of enthusiastic Alexander Elementary School fourth- and fifth-graders shouted Friday morning in Tampa.
It was the kind of TV footage campaign operatives dream of.
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Given his poll numbers, Scott remains one of the most vulnerable governors in the country facing re-election in 2014. A March Quinnipiac University poll found that potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor, would crush Scott among registered voters 50 percent to 34 percent. Only 32 percent of voters said Scott, 60, deserves re-election.
So far, public polls suggest, voters are giving Scott little credit for the improving jobs picture in Florida. Democrats see a prime opportunity to take back the Governor's Mansion, and plenty of Republicans outside Scott's inner circle agree.
"This is the same chattering class that had Bill McCollum and then Alex Sink measuring drapes for the Governor's Mansion. They both learned the hard way about underestimating Rick Scott, but apparently the Tallahassee establishment just never learns its lesson," said Tony Fabrizio, Scott's chief political adviser. "We look forward to a campaign against either of the Tallahassee establishment favorites — Crist or Sink — as their dismal record of high unemployment, sinking home prices and a collapsing economy while leading the state will serve as a sharp contrast to the dramatic turnaround the state has undergone under Gov. Scott."
The thinking among Scott supporters is that a Crist candidacy could help motivate hostile Republicans. It would also ensure the election would be a referendum on Crist as much as the incumbent.
At the same time, Scott's background of having been ousted as leader of health care company that paid a $1.7 billion fine for alleged Medicare fraud is unlikely to be a central issue again.
Likewise, the backlash from voters angry about the state rejecting federal money to expand health insurance for more than 1 million low-income Floridians will be diluted because Scott publicly supported the expansion.
Mostly, though, supporters see Scott's fortunes as tied to a steadily improving economy. He may not be the most warm, fuzzy and likable candidate, the thinking goes, but voters will appreciate that he is delivering on his central campaign promises of 2010.
"In 2010, nobody knew who Rick Scott was, so the campaign had to tell his story and at the same time explain how he was going to fix Florida's economy," said Republican consultant Brian Burgess of Tallahassee, who worked on Scott's 2010 campaign. "This time around, everyone knows Rick Scott, and they also know the economy got better on his watch. His campaign just has to connect the dots."
Scott spent $75 million of his own money to narrowly beat Sink, the former chief financial officer, in 2010, and he told people afterward that he would spend none of his own money on the re-election.
His reported net worth has fallen from $218 million when he ran for governor to $83 million at the end of 2011, according to required financial disclosures. Scott's 2012 disclosure is due to be released this summer.
No one believes he would not dip into his own pockets if necessary, but Scott already is aggressively raising money for what he expects to be a $100 million re-election campaign. His political committee, Let's Get to Work, already has banked more than $10 million.
"People have been very supportive and invested in my (political committee) already because they believe in what I'm doing, and they know I've turned our economy around," Scott said Friday, sidestepping the question of whether he will invest any of his own money toward his re-election.
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Scott's campaign team is expected to be smaller than four years ago, because much of the financing and organizing now can be done through the state GOP.
The top strategist again will be Fabrizio, a blunt, cigar-smoking Brooklyn native Bob Woodward once dubbed "an attack specialist" for his work on the Bob Dole campaign. Fabrizio, now residing in Fort Lauderdale, is the pollster and big-picture strategist who has continued advising Scott throughout his first three years as governor.
Also sure to be on board are media consultants Curt Anderson, Brad Todd and Nelson Warfield, who worked with Fabrizio on the last Scott campaign as well as Rick Perry's presidential campaign.
The governor's office and state party have imported several staffers who previously worked for other Curt Anderson clients, including Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana governor and prospective 2016 presidential contender. In Tallahassee, some Republicans jokingly refer to the Florida GOP as the Republican Party of Jindal because of the numerous ties to Anderson.
For his part, Scott naturally says he's too busy governing to think about what his campaign will look like. Whatever the polls say today, however, Democrats should not underestimate him.
"I'm going to keep working on jobs, keep working on education. Those are the two things our families care about, and keeping the cost of living low," Scott said.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]