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Sinking GOP Poll Numbers May Put Florida in Play

Florida Gov. Rick Scott visits the Port of Jacksonville, January 2011. (Photo: JAXPORT)

Miami – In the past few weeks, Gov. Rick Scott has traveled around the state extolling the accomplishments of the recent legislative session and promoting his success in pushing Florida down a more conservative, financially sound path.

So why is his approval rating the lowest of any governor in America?

“I don’t think about it,” Mr. Scott said in a brief interview when asked about his 29 percent approval rating in a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in May. More alarming for the governor: his negative rating has soared from 22 percent in February shortly after he entered office to 57 percent, suggesting that the more Floridians get to know him, the less they like him.

Mr. Scott, however, chalks up the numbers to his agenda. “Everybody’s scared about change,” he said. “I’m going to make the tough decisions because I know, long-term, they pay off. But, you know, short-term, everybody is worried about change.”

The promise of wholesale changes appealed to Florida voters, who overlooked Mr. Scott’s lack of experience and propelled him into the Governor’s Mansion last year as a Tea Party darling. But within six months of Mr. Scott’s swearing-in, many Floridians seem to have soured on the governor, an unflinching former health insurance executive whose leadership style strikes some as remote and uncaring.

Mr. Scott’s sinking popularity has Republican politicians and some strategists worried that his troubles could hamper their chances of tilting the state’s 29 electoral votes back into their column in 2012. President Obama won Florida by 2.8 percentage points in 2008.

Republican Senate and House candidates are also worrying, strategists say, that the governor’s rapidly declining popularity will affect their chances of winning election. And in Miami, two Republican candidates for mayor have distanced themselves from the governor.

State Senator Mike Fasano, Republican of New Port Richey, has verbally tussled with Mr. Scott and his staff. “If the election was held right now, he would have no impact or a negative impact — there’s no question about it,” he said.

Mr. Scott’s unpopularity is mostly rooted in his aggressive push for large cuts in the budget and the public-sector work force, his decision to reject $2.4 billion in federal money for a high-speed rail project, and the dismissive and even abrasive way he deals with those who disagree with him or ask a lot of questions.

He also promised to create many jobs, and it has been the mantra of his tenure so far. But the state’s unemployment rate, down from a high of 11.9 percent, is still at 10.6 percent, one of the highest rates in the country. Despite the governor’s efforts to woo out-of-state corporations to the Sunshine State, the companies have not come in droves.

The economy also continues to reel from a shell-shocked real estate market and a push by some national Republicans to revamp Medicare, a frightening prospect for any Florida politician, given the age of so many of its residents.

“Scott is still not well known in Florida,” said Bob Graham, a former governor and United States senator. “Everything he does is somewhat of a new revelation on what his positions are going to be. And so far, many Floridians have found the things he has done highly objectionable.”

Brian Burgess, a spokesman for Mr. Scott, said another recent poll did not have approval ratings as low as the Quinnipiac poll.

“At the end of the day, what matters is who has a plan to create jobs,” Mr. Burgess said. “We like how we stack up against the national economic trend. He inherited a high unemployment rate, and it’s gone down every month.”

On the Democratic side, Mr. Scott’s slump may have given frustrated Democrats a reason for optimism in Florida, although they are reluctant to predict how it might affect the 2012 election.

In recent months, Mr. Obama has visited the state three times, and his trip to Puerto Rico this month, the first official visit by an American president in a half-century, was undoubtedly meant to win favor with Florida’s rapidly growing Puerto Rican population.

“Rick Scott is the reason the state will be competitive for Barack Obama,” said Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and a longtime Democratic fund-raiser and strategist.

Mr. Berger said the governor was politically tone-deaf, pointing as evidence to the chaos at a signing ceremony for the state’s $69.1 billion budget late last month at The Villages in Sumter County. Some Democrats said that they were removed from the event by sheriff’s deputies, on orders of Mr. Scott’s aides. News reports said that sheriff’s deputies told the expelled Democrats that the event was “private.”

Mr. Scott has had other difficulties. The Republican-dominated Legislature failed to approve an Arizona-style immigration package, one of the cornerstones of the governor’s legislative agenda and a major issue for the Tea Party.

And many voters have blanched at a number of his legislative accomplishments, particularly a new state budget that puts thousands of state employees and teachers out of work and requires public workers to start paying part of their salary to cover pension costs.

Mr. Scott’s staff appears to be trying to counter the negative press. His senior aides set up a way for people to send a prewritten letter of praise for the governor to seven Florida newspapers. The letter, sent by a click on Mr. Scott’s Web site, was written by members of his campaign team.

“While politicians usually disappoint us and rarely keep their promises,” the letter reads, “Rick is refreshing because he is keeping his word. His policies are helping to attract businesses to our state and get people back to work.”

Mr. Berger, the Fort Lauderdale lawyer, said Mr. Scott’s distance from the state press corps was hurting his reputation.

“Rick Scott thought he didn’t need the press to get elected or to govern,” Mr. Berger said.

“And the press is portraying him in a very bad light.”

In recent days, the pressures on Mr. Scott have led to an overhaul in his office. His chief of staff, Mike Prendergast, is leaving, and Mary Anne Carter, a senior aide who was a top strategist for his campaign, has resigned. Late last week, Mr. Scott hired a new chief of staff, Steve MacNamara, who was most recently the chief of staff and general counsel to the Florida Senate president.

Several Republican strategists said they felt confident that Mr. Scott’s early missteps would not affect the results of the Florida presidential primary, and would have only a limited impact on other Republicans running for office in Florida.

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“Rick Scott could be at zero percent approval, and if unemployment is at 10.5 percent or 11 percent, then Barack Obama is not getting re-elected,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist working for Adam Hasner in the United States Senate race in Florida.

For his part, Mr. Graham, the former Florida senator and governor, said a crucial question would be whether Republican candidates sought out Mr. Scott’s endorsement and support before Florida’s presidential primary.

“That will be an early, interesting indicator of whether voters in Florida think he’s toxic,” Mr. Graham said. “Regardless of how that goes, I believe Barack Obama is going to be re-elected and win Florida on his own — not because a state official has fallen in public approval.”

Don Van Natta Jr. reported from Miami, and Gary Fineout from Tallahassee, Fla.

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