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Rick Scott and Mitt Romney sound discordant notes on Florida's economy

Published Aug. 13, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — Numbers may not lie, but Republicans Mitt Romney and Rick Scott are using them to portray two very conflicting points of view about Florida's economic picture.

In a new television ad, the campaign of the Republican presidential candidate plays melancholy music as it describes "Obama's Florida" as a state with "8.6 percent unemployment, record foreclosures, 600,000 more Floridians in poverty."

The governor greets the same 8.6 percent unemployment number as a sign of rapid improvement, proclaiming on his website that it is "the lowest it's been since December 2008!"

Unlike Romney, Scott has carefully avoided criticizing the president and instead turned the data into promoting his record of creating jobs.

The governor also tells audiences "the number of unemployed has gone from 568,000 to 320,000," "median home prices are up," and Florida's job growth rate "has been positive for 23 consecutive months."

It's a dissonance that may become more distinct as Romney and Scott take the stage during the Republican National Convention this month in Tampa and Romney campaigns today in Florida.

"What I'm going to talk about is pretty much what I do every day, what I ran on," Scott said last week when asked what he'll say during his convention speech. "It's how do we get our state back to work."

But the numbers he cites don't jibe with the narrative Romney's campaign wants Floridians to hear. Romney's team is carefully scripting a convention playbook that would persuade voters that the economy is still in the tank after 31/2 years under President Barack Obama.

With an abundance of statistical data, each candidate can cherry-pick the numbers to best fit his Florida narrative.

A Romney campaign missive, for example, lists the statistics that make up "Obama's Florida Record." The list includes: "795,432 Unemployed Floridians Seeking Work; 676,535 Floridians Who Have Fallen Into Poverty; 105,000 Florida Jobs Lost; $3,369 Decline In Florida's Median Income; and 45 Percent of All Mortgaged Florida Homes Underwater."

The real numbers tell an even different story.

When Obama took office in January 2009, Florida's unemployment was at 8.7 percent, nearly identical to where it is today. It rose to 11.4 percent in January 2010, had dropped to 10.9 percent by the time Rick Scott took office in January 2011 and has been dropping somewhat steadily since.

Scott takes credit for the drop in the unemployment rate in a television ad that ran in June, in frequent speeches as well as on Republican Party and Scott's campaign websites. The governor makes no mention of the fact that Obama was in charge during that time, too.

Unlike Romney, however, Scott does not focus on the shrinking labor market or the jobs lost, most of which were in construction and the public sector. Instead, he touts the "127,000 private sector jobs that have been added in Florida" — which Romney's campaign doesn't mention.

Chris McCarty, an economist with the University of Florida, said the truth about Florida's economy lies somewhere in-between the Scott and Romney narratives, which tend to pin all troubles on the federal government and attribute all successes to the state.

"Things have obviously improved, but nobody would argue that we've returned to anything close to normal," he said. "How much of (the improvement) the governor can take responsibility for? I don't know."

With 29 electoral votes, Florida is considered a must-win state for Romney and, his advisers say, he's not likely to change his message.

"Our message is simple: The economy is doing better because of Gov. Scott, but it's not where it should be because of President Obama," said Alberto Martinez, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign in Florida. "The challenges Florida faces are rooted in Washington."

Scott's popularity ratings make him unlikely to be tapped to help by the GOP's presumptive nominee, but the governor is clearly not backing down from his rosy outlook either.

"My job is to continue to talk about what we're doing in Florida and the fact that we're headed in the right direction," he said.

He added that he could do better with a federal partner.

"We are doing the right things here," Scott said. "Look, we're reducing taxes. We're reducing regulation. Our agencies are trying to work with businesses to get more jobs here. Now, we need the federal government to do its part."

Can the two views under one tent hurt Romney?

Brad Coker, a pollster with Mason-Dixon Research, believes it already is.

"Rick Scott is out there promoting Rick Scott. That not only is undercutting Mitt Romney, it may be hurting Connie Mack,'' he said, referring to the Republican front-runner in the U.S. Senate race.

"I know the governor's ratings have been low and he's trying to do things to improve them,'' he said, "But he's not up for re-election until 2014 and there's no reason in the world why he can't wait until the day after the election to start running that stuff.''

Romney's campaign and state Republican officials both say they have a good relationship with the governor and have no intention of telling him to modify his message.

"He's trying to tout the positive and it's his call,'' said Jeff Bechdel, spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida. "We're certainly not telling him what he should say."

Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown, whose latest survey found that 52 percent of Florida voters disapprove of the job Scott is doing, said that with the onslaught of television ads, most people aren't paying attention to the governor's message on the economy. A review by National Journal found an eye-popping $58 million spent on presidential TV spending in Florida since May 1.

"Scott's pretty much not part of the discussion — not through any part of his own,'' Brown said. "This is a presidential campaign, and he's not running for president." He added, however, that like other governors in swing states, the governor could just let the economic data speak for itself and stay out of the debate.

"You don't need to tell people things are better if they're better,'' Brown said. He noted that Ohio Gov. John Kasich's job approval numbers used to be as bad as Scott's but the economy has improved in that state and his numbers have followed.

"The story isn't about the governor — even in his own state,'' Brown said. "The story is about the president."

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