TAMPA — Rick Scott was mingling with Florida's most devoted Republicans when one man volunteered that he was from Manatee County.
"I tried to buy Manatee Memorial Hospital," Scott offered cheerfully, in the way others might make note of having a cousin from the area.
The debut of the multimillionaire former hospital executive at a Florida GOP gathering in Tampa this weekend drew a mix of curiosity and cold shoulders as polls show him leading Republican Bill McCollum in the governor's race.
The political rookie, who has already spent $16 million on TV ads, could end the career of McCollum, the state attorney general and a party stalwart who has been attending GOP meetings since 1976.
"These are tumultuous times, and every race is up for grabs," said Allison DeFoor, a North Florida state committeeman. "People are willing to look at all the options on the table."
Saturday's meeting of the state Republican executive board was the first since the arrest of former chairman Jim Greer on fraud and money-laundering charges. Even as Republicans touted the strength of their slate in the busiest election cycle in decades, activists speculated about the ongoing criminal investigations connected to assorted party leaders and moneyraisers.
"The worst of it in my opinion is out," said state Sen. John Thrasher, who replaced Greer in February, and on Saturday presided over a closed-door meeting to discuss an exhaustive party audit expected to be complete by late July.
"As far as any further criminal activity or anything like that, I don't sense there is any. Having said that, I don't know if there are IRS issues," he said, referring to cases where top legislators and party staffers spent heavily on state GOP credit cards.
The party for much of the past year had been consumed with the drama of Gov. Charlie Crist vs. former state House Speaker Marco Rubio for the Senate, but no more. Now Crist is a registered independent, Rubio is the de facto nominee, and the attention is on the unpredictable gubernatorial primary between Scott and McCollum.
The former chief executive worth $218 million was peppered with questions about Columbia/HCA paying $1.7 billion in fines for Medicare fraud and some of its hospitals providing abortions.
"My experience is that government works like a big company," Scott said when asked about his lack of experience. "I had more employees than the state — way more."
Scott, 57, in person can come off like a soft-spoken and wide-eyed kid when it comes to politics.
"I was shocked by the number of people there," he said, recounting the reporters who came to see him file campaign papers in Tallahassee earlier in the week.
"Everybody was just bombarding me with questions all of a sudden. That was interesting."
In Tampa, Orange County chairman Lew Oliver echoed Scott's campaign slogan and asked the candidate: "Let's get to work — doing what?"
Scott wasn't ready to give specifics. "We'll be coming out with a plan in a couple weeks," he said.
In response to another question, Scott acknowledged not being familiar with the federal "motor voter" law that transformed the voter rolls by allowing people to easily register to vote at driver's license agencies.
"Somebody who has been in politics a long time has been through attacks, has been vetted, so there's less likely to be surprises," Oliver said. "You never know what could come up with someone like Scott who comes out of nowhere."
Others see Scott's outsider status as part of his appeal.
"What Rick Scott needed to do here was to be sincere, and that's the way he came across," said Republican political consultant Jamie Miller. "I don't know that we should determine our governor by the number of Republican party meetings they've been to."
"The problem we've had with politicians is so often they have no business experience," said Manatee state committeeman David Agee. "Rick Scott actually knows how to make money and knows how to control costs because you have to do that in the hospital business."
The looming question at a time when voters are eager for fresh faces is whether they will overlook the fraud by Columbia/HCA.
"I'm not giving him a pass, but he admitted it and takes responsibility," said Fort Lauderdale activist Javier Manjerres. "McCollum is losing a lot of attraction. He's seen as the typical establishment dude."
The winner of the GOP primary is expected to face the Democratic front-runner, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, in the Nov. 2 election.
"At the end of the day, the Democrats must be salivating about running against Rick Scott," said Palm Beach Republican chairman Sid Dinerstein. "There's a little discomfort with just taking out your wallet and dumping on Bill McCollum."
Scott's impact on the race was evident in the speech McCollum gave to supporters Friday evening. In a television ad, Scott has criticized McCollum for not supporting an Arizona-style immigration law for Florida.
"Let me set the record straight," he said. "I am strongly in favor of the amended Arizona law. … When I'm governor we're going to toughen (Florida's) law."
After a year of turmoil, dissension and scandal, party chairman Thrasher also tried to set the record straight: "I promise there is a new atmosphere," he said of the party.
Greer's shadow still hangs over the party, however.
"Don't blame me. I voted for Carole Jean," declared a sticker prominent on the lapels of a number of GOP activists.
Greer narrowly defeated Carole Jean Jordan for the party chairmanship in 2006.
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