By James Oliphant
SARASOTA, Fla. (Reuters) - The pundits said he never had a chance: He was a high-powered U.S. businessman who had never run for office. He largely financed his own campaign. He took a hard line on illegal immigration and Obamacare. His attacks on Islam were controversial.
Six years ago that businessman, Rick Scott, won Florida's Republican primary for governor. He then went on to take the general election. Now in his second term, Scott is in many ways a prototype for Donald Trump’s U.S. presidential campaign.
Scott’s success in Florida is something that should give serious pause to Marco Rubio, a U.S. senator from the state who hopes to use it as a springboard to unseat Trump as the leading contender for the Republican nomination to the Nov. 8 election.
Florida’s March 15 primary, to select a wealth of delegates to the Republicans' July nominating convention, is likely the final chance for Rubio, and perhaps the Republican establishment, to halt the furious advance of Trump, a billionaire businessman with homes in New York and Florida.
Trump's two leading strategists in Florida have strong ties to Scott, rebutting the commonly held presumption among Trump’s critics that his campaign is all about the former reality TV show host's celebrity and popular appeal and not about tactics.
“Nobody thought he had a shot. Nobody!” said Joe Gruters, a top Republican Party official in the state who was an early ally of Scott and who now co-chairs Trump's Florida effort. “The establishment threw everything you can imagine at Rick Scott.”
A first-term senator, Rubio has finished behind Trump in early-nomination contests to date. Rubio grew up in Miami, and his Cuban-American heritage could give him an edge with the state’s burgeoning Latino population.
But Rubio is still climbing uphill in the state race. While he has benefited from the withdrawal from the race of another Florida son, ex-Governor Jeb Bush, he trails Trump significantly. A Quinnipiac University survey released on Thursday showed Trump with 44 percent of the Republican vote, with Rubio far behind at 28 percent.
The good news for Rubio is that it’s the highest level of support he has had in the state, suggesting that he is moving upward when he needs it the most. But it may not be enough with many voters having cast early and absentee ballots.
“When you have such a commanding lead like Trump has in all these states, you have the ability to focus on states like Florida where you know you can deliver the knockout blow,” Gruters said.
While other Republicans campaigned in early-voting states, Trump served notice he was taking winning Florida seriously, methodically holding large-scale events across Florida, including one in October in Miami, home to both Rubio and Bush.
When Bush and Rubio came to Florida at all, it was largely to raise money in closed-door fundraisers. “There’s a big difference between when you have 10,000 people showing up to a rally, hearing the battle cry and getting motivated,” Gruters said, “than when you are meeting people for $10,000-a-plate dinners where you exclude the rank-and-file members.”
Bush’s campaign was in such poor shape near the end that when a Reuters correspondent visited his state campaign office in Tampa, it was deserted. All of the staff and volunteers had been sent to South Carolina for a primary vote in an unsuccessful last-ditch effort to rescue his presidential bid.
Gruters is vice-chairman of the state Republican Party, making him perhaps the highest-ranking party official in the country to embrace Trump. He heads Trump’s Florida effort with Susie Wiles of Jacksonville, who ran Scott’s 2010 campaign. He said he sees strong similarities between Scott and Trump.
“It’s not unusual for Florida to elect these non-establishment guys,” he said.
Scott was the former CEO of Columbia/HCA, the healthcare giant that ultimately settled a massive billing fraud case brought by the U.S. government during his tenure. When he entered the 2010 Republican primary, the assumption was that it was Attorney General Bill McCollum’s race to lose.
Financing his own campaign, Scott ran hard to McCollum’s right, supporting Arizona’s then highly controversial anti-immigration law and releasing an ad that ripped President Barack Obama for defending a possible mosque in New York near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Like Trump, Scott portrayed himself as a businessman better suited to repairing the distressed economy than the Republican establishment was. “They both bring the same kind of attitude to government,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, “that a business person can run government better than professional politicians.”
Trump has contributed $125,000 to Scott’s political-action committee since 2012. Some have speculated Scott could serve as Trump’s vice presidential nominee.
But in what may serve as another lesson for Trump, Scott remains a highly polarizing figure. His relationship with the state legislature has been prickly — and his approval ratings have never crossed 50 percent. “He entered politics with half the state’s voters liking him,” MacManus said. “He’s never gone much beyond that.”
PLAYING FROM BEHIND
Bush’s departure from the presidential race has left Rubio flying the establishment flag. His local supporters say it already has made a huge difference, both in terms of support and money.
“(Bush) was dividing votes,” Tom Rooney, a U.S. congressman from Florida who is chairing Rubio’s campaign here, told Reuters. “We don’t have that issue anymore.”
The Rubio campaign, in Florida as elsewhere, is not courting Trump’s voters. It believes they are unlikely to switch. Instead, Rooney said, the idea is to woo the 60-65 percent of the party that so far has not supported Trump.
To that end, Rubio has been playing catch-up, opening new offices and securing a bevy of endorsements from local politicians. But Rooney concedes while Rubio has consoled himself with second-place finishes in places such as Iowa and South Carolina, that will not be enough in Florida, especially given that the winner gets all of the state’s 99 delegates.
“When we get into the winner-take-all states,” Rooney said, “you can’t come in second and say you’re doing well.”
(Reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Howard Goller)