Tampa Bay voters had an opportunity to see Bill McCollum and Rick Scott face-to-face in a televised debate Thursday night, just 19 days before the Aug. 24 Republican gubernatorial primary. And what a show it was. McCollum quickly went on the offensive by hammering Scott's business record, a theme that at times left the health care executive flustered. It's too bad voters won't see a rematch before the primary election.
In substance, the hourlong event was disappointing. Despite glancing references to job plans and illegal immigration, the back-and-forth revolved around the same two topics that have dominated in Scott and McCollum's paid attack ads: McCollum repeatedly evoked the $1.7 billion fine Scott's former hospital company, Columbia/HCA, paid for Medicare fraud. Scott dismissed McCollum as a career politician who was accepting tax dollars under the public campaign finance program.
Ultimately Scott faded under the repeated blows from McCollum, providing no satisfactory answers about how to reconcile his claims — that he was unaware of the practices that led his company to pay the largest Medicare fraud fine in history — with his contention that as a "proven businessman" he would be a more successful governor. "I'm for business people running for governor," McCollum quipped at one point. "That's why Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney have endorsed me."
Clearly this was a format where McCollum, a 20-year congressional veteran who was elected Florida attorney general in 2006, felt comfortable. And Scott tried to deflect McCollum's comments as acts of a "desperate career politician behind in the polls." He repeatedly said his record was one of building "great companies" that "drove down health care costs" and created private sector jobs. What he learned from the Columbia/HCA experience, he said, was that in running a company with 280,000 employees he should have hired more auditors to "trust, but verify."
Scott's answers rang as hollow as his television ads where he said he "accepted responsibility" for the fraud. What he accepted, McCollum reminded viewers at one point, was a $300 million severance package after he was forced to resign. Scott countered he honestly made the money after taking his and his wife's savings to build the company.
Debates are important. They give voters a chance to see how candidates respond under pressure and in public — a common situation for Florida's governor. Scott lost ground on Thursday, but he could perform better next week at a scheduled debate in Orlando that would be broadcast statewide. So far he's refusing to participate. He should reconsider.