Florida's two main rivals for governor kicked their campaigns into gear on Monday as both Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Charlie Crist lashed out at each other in an effort to ramp up enthusiasm among core voters.
Scott, the Republican incumbent seeking a second term, started a two-week bus tour at stops in eastern Hillsborough County and Bradenton, where he derided Crist as a "slick politician" and "smooth talker."
The tour was billed as a way for Scott to tout his plans to cut taxes an additional $1 billion over the next two years if he's re-elected. But in an effort to reconnect with the conservative Republicans who propelled him into office, he continually linked Crist with President Barack Obama during the first stop at a hay and animal feed store.
"He's just like Barack Obama. He thinks money grows on trees," Scott said. "Those two are exactly the same. They are in for big spending, more debt and higher taxes."
Scott campaigned fiercely in 2010 as a conservative who was aligned with the tea party movement. But he has since then backed away from some of his positions, including the need to pass an Arizona-styled law on immigration and to sharply reduce government spending. By contrast, he is calling for more spending on education and the environment if he is re-elected. Scott is no longer calling for an Arizona-styled law and he also backed expansion of Medicaid despite it being a core component of the president's health care overhaul.
Crist, who was elected as a Republican in 2006 but is seeking a second term as a Democrat, made his own effort to connect with Democratic voters by attending Labor Day picnics being put on by central Florida unions.
He blasted Scott as a "corporate governor" who is "crushing the middle class" because he's allowing utility companies and property insurance companies to raise their rates. Crist scoffed at Scott's pledges to increase spending on the environment and education and said they were an election-year conversion intended to get people to forget Scott's record.
"He's trying to be more like me, and I understand it because we do what's right for people and he does what's right for corporations," Crist said.
Crist also repeated his support for policies backed by Democrats, including raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.
Recent polls have essentially showed the two main candidates tied even though Scott has spent in excess of $20 million on television ads that have sharply criticized Crist. Crist and his Democratic allies have responded with their own ads, but they have so far been greatly outspent by the Republicans.
The question for both candidates is whether or not the rash of negative ads will depress voter turnout. If that happens, it will be crucial to turn out loyal supporters.
Scott's bus tour is taking him into key Republican areas of the state including southwest Florida and the Panhandle. State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, during the stop in Plant City called on "conservatives" to rally around Scott in order to help him win a second term.
Crist, for his part, is getting help from former President Bill Clinton at a rally that will be held later this week in Miami. Backers at the union picnic called on union members to work hard to "take this election."