Rick Scott for Florida: A Campaign for the 21st Century

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

NAPLES — Wearing a light blue shirt and red tie, Rick Scott sat comfortably behind the microphone of a conservative-leaning Jacksonville radio station in early June and hashed through the issues in the upcoming race for governor.

“What’s really exciting is our message is getting out,” Scott told the host. “It’s resonating with voters.”

It was a good day for Scott, who had just learned that a Quinnipiac University poll showed him with a double-digit lead over his rival, state Attorney General Bill McCollum, who until recently appeared to be a shoe-in for the GOP nomination.

In fact, over the last two months, there have been a lot of good days for Scott, the Naples businessman who entered the governor’s race in April and has since rocketed from near obscurity to the lead.

Much has been made of Scott’s ubiquitous “let’s get to work” television and radio ads. Some say he’s spent upwards of $15 million blanketing the state.

Those ads were the start of a multi-dimensional, “21st century” campaign that is as focused on social networking websites as it is on attracting traditional media coverage, said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor.

MacManus said Scott’s messages seem to be well-tested.

“This is not just a mom-and-pop campaign by an independent who decided he wanted to be governor,” MacManus said. “This is a full-fledged, professionally run campaign.”

McCollum has called Scott’s campaign “ruthless” and “disturbing,” and said his ads are “not truthful.” There also have been questions whether Scott, a multimillionaire, has been intentionally sidestepping the traditional media vetting process, and instead attempting to buy the election with his inflated bank account.

On his website, Scott said he has been criticized by McCollum and the media for “not playing by the political insider ‘rules’ on how to wage a campaign in Florida,” saying he wears their criticism “as a badge of honor.”

This week, the Naples Daily News contacted most of the major broadcast and print media across the state asking about appearances Scott has made in their coverage areas. Some said getting an interview with Scott was no more difficult than any other candidate, while several expressed concern over his accessibility, or lack thereof, and said interviews have a tendency to get rescheduled or unscheduled.

“It took us forever to get,” Gary Nelson, a reporter with WFOR, a CBS affiliate in Miami, said of a recent interview with Scott. “For weeks and weeks we had been requesting an interview with him, and had no success at all.”

In response, the Scott campaign said he has been available to any media outlet that has requested an interview.

Jennifer Baker, Scott’s communications director, said that initially, the traditional media didn’t take him seriously as a candidate and expressed little interest in interviewing him. Scott, who is trying to do in four months what takes other politicians years, is courting voters, not the media, Baker said.

“We’re focused on voter contact and speaking directly to voters,” Baker said. “If media is interested in speaking to him, of course we will accommodate those. We’ve gone out of our way to do that.”

■ Click here for related story: Florida, Collier GOP leaders neutral as attacks escalate on Rick Scott, McCollum

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Scott made his first major public appearance — called a “coming out party” among bloggers and reporters — at a Tampa Young Republican meeting May 25. It was more than a month after he announced his candidacy.

At the meeting of about 100 people, Scott was soft-spoken but seemed comfortable in front of a full room, said William March, senior political reporter for the Tampa Tribune.

About a week before that appearance, March conducted an in-depth phone interview with Scott for a profile story. He had worked with Baker, Scott’s spokeswoman, when she headed up communications on a previous campaign, and said he had no trouble getting access to the candidate.

“There was no greater difficulty than what I would expect with any other statewide candidate,” he said. “They provided me the interview time I needed for what I needed to do.”

Other west Florida media outlets that tried to get access to Scott prior to the Young Republican meeting reported varying levels of success. Some say his campaign hasn’t made him available for interviews. Others say it has taken some prodding to get a little face time, and that he seems more available in recent weeks since his poll numbers started climbing.

WTSP, a CBS affiliate in Tampa, attempted unsuccessfully to conduct an in-depth, sit-down interview with Scott in early- to mid-May, and offered to come to Naples to film Scott at his home or office.

“Either he was not available, or just not ready at that point,” said Ken Tonning, station manager of WTSP.

It was not until Scott made the May 25 trip to Tampa that a WTSP reporter was able to spend about 10 minutes interviewing him.

Scott has been particularly active in North Florida, particularly in the Jacksonville area and Panhandle. During the past two weeks, he’s held at least five campaign events in the northern part of the state, often speaking to reporters afterward.

David Hunt, a political reporter for the Jacksonville Times Union, said he thought Scott needed to win the Interstate 10 corridor, and with little support from the Republican establishment the only way was through campaign stops and advertising.

“The establishment have put support behind McCollum a long time ago,” he said. “So Scott has to get out to the rank-and-file GOP to win.”

Some of the events have featured short question-and-answer sessions, but Hunt characterized the questions as pretty tame.

The biggest lines of questioning surround Scott’s stance on the Arizona immigration law and his role in the Medicare fraud his former company, HCA/Columbia, was fined for in the mid-’90s.

In those respects, he seems to be sticking to talking points he’s struck in his statewide TV ad blitz, continuing to say he learned lessons from his time at HCA and that in government a lack of accountability makes lessons moot.

“Most of the people coming are already supporters or at least interested in him,” Hunt said. “So he’s not getting a lot of push back on the HCA thing.”

Media in Central Florida, South Florida and Southwest Florida had similarly mixed stories, with some having more success landing interviews with Scott than others. Most outlets that requested interviews received them, however Fort Myers-based Florida Weekly reported it made four attempts to contact Scott for an interview, but said calls weren’t returned.

“Once you get to him, he’s perfectly accessible and, I think, willing to mix it up and answer some direct questions,” said Michael Putney, a political reporter with WPLG, an ABC affiliate in Miami, who has interviewed Scott twice.

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With his ads playing across the state, Scott has scoffed at the notion he is trying to buy the election.

But election and campaigning expert Daniel Smith, a political science professor at University of Florida in Gainesville, said in some ways Scott is buying his frontrunner status. Smith contrasted Scott’s fate with that of state Sen. Paula Dockery, who recently folded her GOP campaign for governor.

“She was a well-known state senator who tried to barnstorm around the state in her white Ford Explorer talking to people,” he said. “Rick Scott spent $11 million in the first month all on TV. His numbers have risen remarkably.

“Paula Dockery tried getting local play. It didn’t work.”

Scott has been running a traditional, grassroots campaign, his spokeswoman Baker said, attending private meetings, meet-and-greets, public events and media interviews. But media outlets said Scott has gone to few large events so far. His only conventional campaign appearance in South Florida, for example, appears to be an early June stop at Cafe Versailles in Little Havana, a traditional spot to court the Cuban-American vote.

Baker said Scott will be making more appearances statewide.

“It’s been a little over two months,” she said. “How many times has Bill McCollum been in every market in the last two-and-a-half months? There are only 24 hours a day and seven days a week.”

Peter Bergerson, a political science professor at Florida Gulf Coast University in Estero, said it appears Scott is using the small groups to gain experience presenting policy and developing a stump speech.

“And, he’s doing it without the close scrutiny of the media,” Bergerson said. “This is a common practice, too, that other people have used.”

The groups picked by Scott probably reflect the grassroots, political activism mentality common to this year’s campaigns, Bergerson said. By speaking to these groups first, Bergerson speculated, Scott is likely building a core audience of people who are “on fire.”

“By being ‘on fire,’ we mean that those are the ones that are going to then be energized, they’re going to be the ones that are going to move on to be part of his organizational effort,” Bergerson said.

Some reporters have said Scott seems almost shy on the campaign trail, and is still figuring how to work a room, shake hands and ask for votes.

“He is learning on the fly,” Putney said. “These are skills that people who run for city council and county commission and state legislature or any elective office, they learn these political skills.

“It’s very basic stuff, but Mr. Scott is just now learning how to do it.”

He’s going to have to.

MacManus said Scott, who is running as an outsider, is in good shape at this point, but the two months until the Aug. 24 primary leave plenty of time for McCollum to play catch-up. McCollum needs to remind voters about the positive things he’s done in his career and not let Scott define him, MacManus said.

“I think that probably, as McCollum steps up his attacks and the third parties step up their media buys, it will be a different dynamic,” she said. “Right now (Scott) is on the offensive. That’s a better position to be in in politics than on the defensive.”