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Rick Scott Seen As Beatable In 2014 -- But Who'll Run?

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RICK SCOTT FLORIDA GOVERNOR RACE 2014
AP

TAMPA -- Emboldened by their gains on Nov. 6, Florida Democrats are buoyant with enthusiasm to take on Gov. Rick Scott in 2014.

Recognizing Scott's low popularity, meanwhile, some Republicans are talking about the possibility of a primary challenge to oust him and pick a different candidate for governor in 2014.

But even those Republicans realize the odds of a credible challenge are slim.

Despite their confidence, Democrats face their own problems -- a field of candidates with no clear champion, all with at least some drawbacks.

Because of former Gov. Charlie Crist's recent alliance with President Barack Obama, some Democrats consider him the Democratic front-runner. But not all are prepared to accept the former Republican, and Crist won't get the nomination without a fight, probably against Alex Sink of Tampa and others.

Scott's job approval ratings have improved during his tenure but remain upside-down.

"There's quiet opposition within the party," said retired University of South Florida political scientist Darryl Paulson, a Republican.

"Considering our problems in this last election cycle, he's not exactly the kind of messenger a lot of Republicans want."

An Oct. 31 Quinnipiac poll said Florida voters disapproved of Scott's job performance 45 percent to 39 percent. That was before the Nov. 6 election fiasco of long lines and slow counts, which Democrats say will further damage his image.

"These problems weren't inevitable; the entire early voting mess was created by Rick Scott," said Democratic activist Susannah Randolph.

Broward County Democratic Party Chairman Mitch Ceasar said Scott "has done an excellent job of unifying the Democratic Party. Whoever our nominee is will get some funding" because of the election problems, he said.

John French, head of Scott's political action committee, couldn't be reached for comment on the race.

Interviews with a number of Republican insiders found a few who favored a primary challenge and more who said they've heard discussion of it but consider it unlikely.

"I've heard talk about it, but I'm pretty skeptical," said Bill "Hoe" Brown, recently elected Hillsborough County delegate to the state party governing committee. "Gov. Scott will be re-elected, and I look forward to helping him. One thing the Republican does not need is a drawn-out primary like there was in the presidential race."

Conservative east Hillsborough County businessman and GOP fundraiser Sam Rashid said he's heard no discussion of a primary challenge, adding, "There is no way that Scott loses a primary ... Conservatives are united behind him."

Rashid and others said that regardless of Scott's approval ratings, he has governed consistently with his campaign promises and hasn't faced any corruption scandals.

Republicans favoring a different candidate didn't want to be quoted by name for fear of alienating other Republicans and breaking party unity, a top GOP value.

They said there is no organized movement, only some discussion and investigation by individuals.

"It will cause trouble in the party, but I'm going to do whatever I can to make sure we don't go into 2014 with Rick Scott leading our ticket," said one GOP county chairman.

Potential challengers mentioned include Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who couldn't be reached for comment last week, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. Asked about the subject during a Romney Tampa campaign event Oct. 31, Putnam, who's widely expected to run for governor some day, sounded negative about a 2014 race but didn't close the door. "I don't anticipate a primary," he said.

Former GOP Chairman Tom Slade said he has heard "whispers" that state Sen. John Thrasher would have the fundraising ability and political clout to mount a challenge, but no serious talk of it.

"The elephant in the room," he said, is former Gov. Jeb Bush, "clearly the strongest candidate we've got for anything in Florida." But most Republicans are skeptical Bush would run for governor again.

Putnam, possibly the strongest candidate known to be interested in the governorship, is only 38 and can afford to wait for a better opportunity, several Republicans noted.

A major obstacle to any primary challenger is that Scott could spend heavily from his own personal fortune on a campaign. In 2010, he spent more than $70 million.

On the Democratic side, Sink says she'll decide about the race after the end of this year, saying she has "lots to think about."

"What keeps the door open is the enormous number of people, even strangers in the street, encouraging me to run again, and the fact that under this governor of our state is not headed in the right direction," she said.

Since her narrow loss to Scott in the 2010 governor's race, she and her husband, prominent lawyer and Democratic fundraiser Bill McBride, "have done everything they've been asked to do by any candidate or Democratic group," said Tampa Democratic strategist Ana Cruz. "They've hosted more fundraisers at their home than ever before, written more checks to candidates."

Former state Sen. Nan Rich of Weston already is running, and potential candidates include Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer; Fort Lauderdale Mayor and former legislator Jack Seiler; former Miami-Dade Commissioner Jimmy Morales and possibly others.

Crist and Sink, the former state chief finance officer, are the only two who have won statewide races.

Former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio has been considered a possible candidate but hasn't taken steps to build a base in the party or elevate her political profile, Democrats said.

Asked about it last week, she said, "You just never know in politics. I don't think it's a good idea to close the door on anything."

Crist, an independent who would have to switch his affiliation to run as a Democrat, also says he'll decide after the holidays.

He kept a low profile for a while after his 2010 loss in the U.S. Senate race but has vaulted back into prominence as one of Obama's top campaign surrogates, and as a critic of Scott over the 2012 election -- a clear signal he wants to return to office.

His alliance with Obama has boosted his standing with Democrats.

Would they accept a former Republican who has long pronounced himself a conservative?

"He's welcome to join the congregation, but that doesn't mean he'll automatically become the minister," said Seiler, quoting state party Chairman Rod Smith.

But Democratic strategist Steve Schale said Crist "helped himself by getting out there and building relationships."

Cruz said Crist's Charlotte Democratic convention speech and other Obama campaign appearances mean "the White House has sent clear messages that they support Charlie."

And Democrats, Ceasar said, "are hungry for a winner. It's an evolutionary process. It depends partly on the field and how well he sells himself." ___

(c)2012 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.)

Visit the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.) at www.tampatrib.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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