Rick Scott, neophyte politician and surprise candidate for Florida governor, opens one of his now ubiquitous TV commercials with this: "So I bet you're wondering, where have I seen that handsome bald guy before?"
Those who followed President Barack Obama's efforts to overhaul health care may know him already. Scott, who made a fortune in the for-profit hospital industry, stepped forward last year as a highly visible conservative critic of the Democrats' health care plan. Using $5 million of his own money, he formed a group to carry the flag against it, appeared in commercials, ranted on national TV news shows and, critics say, helped whip the tea party crowd into an anti-Obama frenzy.
Now the 57-year-old Naples businessman who has never held elected office is willing to put more of his millions into trying to wrest the Republican nomination for governor away from Bill McCollum, a former congressman and current attorney general. He will have to overcome both his lack of name recognition and also questions about how much he knew about massive Medicare fraud his company committed when he was CEO.
Scott entered the race in April, spending about $4.7 million to blast out commercials in all of Florida's major TV markets. The ads, in which he touts his business acumen and vows to bring accountability to government, are creating a stir: a Mason-Dixon poll earlier this month showed him bouncing to within 14 percentage points of McCollum, who also leads Republican rival Paula Dockery and likely Democratic nominee Alex Sink.
Three months out from the Aug. 24 primary, Scott won't say how much more he's willing to spend on the campaign, but he promises Floridians will see plenty more of his lanky frame and shaved pate in TV commercials.
"I don't know what it's going to take, but I'm going to make sure we get our message out," Scott said. "Because I think we need to have an alternative to the status quo. It's just like in business, you have to invest the money in yourself before other people will invest."
Married for 38 years and the father of two grown daughters, Scott said people started suggesting he run for governor after hearing him speak out about how the federal government needed to stay out of health care. His economic platform of cutting taxes and making it cheaper to do business in Florida doesn't differ that much from McCollum, but he hopes he has an edge by coming across as an outsider promising to run state government like a lean, efficient business.
Pressed for more details of his agenda, Scott said his plans were still being developed and will be presented in the coming weeks.
Republican political scientist Darryl Paulson, a retired University of South Florida professor, said voters' frustration with government make this election cycle ripe for political outsiders — especially one with deep pockets.
"The real question is whether this has legs to it," Paulson said. "It's not surprising to me (that Scott) is where he is at this point in time. The big surprise will be if he continues to gain on McCollum and this becomes a competitive race."
Paulson predicts a harder road for Scott when opponents inevitably start attacking him for what happened at the end of his tenure as CEO of Columbia/HCA, a for-profit hospital chain. In 1997, he was forced out amid a Medicare fraud scandal that would see Columbia/HCA pleading guilty to 14 felonies and paying a whopping $1.7 billion in fines and settlements.
Scott, who got a severance package worth millions in cash and stock, was not indicted and said he did not condone anything illegal.
"Clearly mistakes were made, and when you're CEO of a company you have to take responsibility for mistakes that were made on your watch," he said. Authorities said hospitals fraudulently overstated their expenses in Medicare cases to increase their government compensation.
Scott and a partner started buying hospitals in Texas in the late 1980s, eventually building Columbia/HCA into the world's largest health care chain with hundreds of hospitals and other medical facilities known for cost-cutting efficiency.
After he was forced out, Scott started an investment firm and later co-founded a chain of walk-in medical clinics with prices for treatments listed like a menu at a fast-food restaurant.
McCollum campaign spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said Scott's bounce in the polls wasn't surprising, considering the amount of money he's spent on TV commercials. She speculated that as voters learn about more Scott, they'll be repelled by the Columbia/HCA mess.
"I think there are some very serious questions that Rick Scott is going to have to answer," she said.
Scott is counting on support from plugged-in conservative voters like Billie Tucker, who founded a Jacksonville tea party that drew 7,000 people to a raucous rally last month. Tucker is encouraged by the antiestablishment political tide that led to three-term GOP Sen. Bob Bennett's loss in Utah.
"People are mad," Tucker said. "They're tired of being ignored, they're tired of our hard-earned dollars being wasted. We want fresh faces."
Rick Scott for Governor: http://www.rickscottforflorida.com
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