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Some in GOP worried over Fla. governor's missteps

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By BRENDAN FARRINGTON and GARY FINEOUT
Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Republican Gov. Rick Scott is a multimillionaire and flies in a private jet, yet his campaign decided to criticize Democratic challenger Charlie Crist as an elitist for wearing a Rolex watch.

Democrats pointed out the hypocrisy, and the ensuing media coverage reminded voters that Scott's net worth dwarfed Crist's. Several more of Scott's attacks backfired, and the campaign made other gaffes, including alienating one of its biggest donors.

Polls show the two candidates are roughly tied ahead of November's general election. But the missteps have been noticed by the people Scott will need in a tight re-election: The activists and the donors who help propel a campaign.

"There's a lot of curious things going on," said Tony DiMatteo, former chairman of the Pinellas County Republican Party.

Scott filled his campaign team and top state party posts with non-Floridians brought in to help his re-election. Some wonder if the lack of institutional knowledge of the state has hurt their media strategy.

"Their people have never reached out to the local people. They're isolated," DiMatteo said. "They have their own way of doing things. It's like hitting your head against the wall - they're going to do what they want to do and you let them go."

Among the notable misfires by Scott's office and his campaign:

- Scott bashed Crist for saying he backs in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants when he previously opposed it. Scott himself also flip-flopped on the issue.

- Scott repeatedly said Crist is bad for education. The state Republican Party tried proving the point with a list of bills Crist vetoed, including a college tuition increase and cuts for public schools - actions Crist took to help education.

- Scott relentlessly attacked Crist for supporting President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. But when staff from the governor's office set up a round table to discuss it in heavily Democratic Palm Beach County, the gathered seniors praised the plan.

Greg Blair, a spokesman for Scott's campaign, did not dispute it had made errors, but said recent polls show Scott no longer trails Crist.

"Every campaign makes mistakes," Blair said, pointing out that Crist's once strong lead in the polls had withered.

And yes, Crist has made mistakes, such as announcing in Miami's Little Havana that he'd like to make a campaign fact-finding trip to Cuba. After much backlash, Crist's campaign said he wouldn't visit communist-ruled island before the election.

Still, Scott's campaign gaffes have received more attention.

Earlier this year, top donor Mike Fernandez complained in emails leaked to the media that campaign staffers mocked Mexican accents - which the campaign denied. Curt Anderson, a Washington D.C.-based Scott adviser, responded by insulting Fernandez in an interview with Politico. Fernandez had personally contributed $1.4 million to the political committee formed to re-elect Scott and raised millions more.

The result? Fernandez quit as campaign finance chairman.

"The missteps I think have to do with bringing in outsiders to help run the campaign that are not familiar with the Florida terrain, and it's easy to make mistakes," said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor.

But he said the missteps aren't likely to affect an election he predicted as a tossup.

Scott declined recently to directly answer questions about his campaign, saying instead that all he worries about each day is "jobs, jobs, jobs."

Scott first turned to out-of-state operatives when he organized his 2010 gubernatorial campaign as a political neophyte, since much of the GOP establishment had lined up behind his primary opponent, then-Attorney General Bill McCollum.

Scott, using his own money, quickly started running television ads that went aggressively after both McCollum and eventual Democratic rival Alex Sink, while stressing his own plan to jumpstart the economy.

Brian Burgess, who was Scott's communications director, said many who worked with Scott in that campaign had started with him when he organized Conservatives for Patients' Rights to oppose Obama's health care overhaul.

"There was a strong sense of loyalty and teamwork," said Burgess, who's not involved in Scott's current campaign. "Rick Scott was new to politics, so he was willing to take direction from the experts on our team and we could define him to the public any way we wanted."

This time around Scott is no longer the outsider. While he is relying on one of the firms he used four years ago, the makeup and the duties of his team has changed. There are also signs that Scott has asserted more direct control over this campaign.

"This is Governor Scott's campaign," said Blair when asked about the governor's role in campaign strategy.

Some long-time operatives, however, questioned how closely anyone other than political insiders was paying attention at this point.

"All campaigns in the early going make mistakes, and the Scott campaign has made its fair share of mistakes," said Mac Stipanovich, a lobbyist who previously worked on former Gov. Jeb Bush's campaign team. "I'm not sure the mistakes are any less on one side or the other or any more egregious on one side or the other. It's just that it appears that the Democrats are enjoying greater success in characterizing the mistakes of the Scott campaign."

___

Follow Brendan Farrington on Twitter: http://twitter.com/bsfarrington

Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fineout

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.