Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democrats Charlie Crist and Nan Rich came out swinging on Wednesday at the first event where all three gubernatorial candidates appeared in advance of the November election.
Scott used the release of his election-year budget proposal to take aim at his predecessor without calling out Crist by name, accusing his opponent of "raiding" state reserves while hiking taxes during Crist's four years as Republican governor.
"Over the last three years, we have cut taxes 24 times and now we are going to give another $500 million back to Florida families," Scott told editors and reporters at The Associated Press's annual legislative planning session. "Our tax record in these four budgets represents a sharp contrast to the four budgets before we took office. We have cut taxes dozens of times. But the previous four budgets raised taxes by over $2 billion."
Crist, who became a Democrat in late 2012, questioned Scott's ethics and slammed Scott for slashing education spending in his first two years on the job.
"Now he's trying to fool the people of Florida with an election-year transformation. I don't believe Florida's going to get fooled a second time," Crist said.
Rich, a former Senate minority leader, lumped both governors together and said that Scott's "bad" policies were rooted in those of his GOP predecessors Crist and Jeb Bush.
"While you will hear a lot of new promises nothing tells you what a politician will do quite like what he or she has done. Rick Scott and Charlie Crist have had their chance to lead. I believe they have failed," Rich said.
But Crist largely ignored Rich and instead slammed the incumbent, beginning with Scott's tenure as CEO of hospital giant Columbia/HCA. After Scott left the firm, it paid a record $1.7 billion in fines, fees and damages in a settlement for Medicare and Medicaid fraud. The fraud occurred while Scott was CEO but he left the firm days after the feds raided company offices.
"Floridians need to be reminded who I'm running against. This is a guy who headed a company that ended up having to pay the largest fine for fraud in the history of the United States of America at the time. To me that is stunning and unconscionable," Crist said. "I'm going to talk about it every day."
Crist said he would focus his campaign on "ethics, education, the environment and the economy," the same platform as his first bid for office when he ran for the state Senate in 1992.
Scott, meanwhile, contrasted his budget with repeated digs about what took place before he took office in 2011.
"Florida shed more than 800,000 jobs in the four years before I took office. Taxes increased, debt increased and the unemployment rate rose to 11.4 percent, all while hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost. Florida was in a hole and for four years, there was just more digging," he said.
When Scott took office in 2011, economic development experts told him that "not only was Florida not competitive for big jobs projects, but we were often not even considered," he said. "Today -- that has all changed."
But Crist countered that he wants to "create good jobs" for Floridians.
"You do that by thinking big, not thinking small," he said.
Crist also appealed to his audience, editors and reporters often frustrated by Scott's unavailability or the governor's habit of staying on message when answering questions from the media.
"Four years ago you had a governor that liked to talk to you and liked to answer your questions. I'll go to all your editorial boards. Now there's a difference," he said, referring to Scott's snubbing of editorial boards when he campaigned for governor in 2010.
Scott also boasted that his budget pays back money into state reserves Crist "raided," something Crist and the GOP-dominated Legislature used to plug billion-dollar gaps in the state budget during Florida's economic downturn.
"He raided the taxpayers. His company had to pay a $1.7 billion fine for fraud. That's a raid," Crist told reporters before leaving the Capitol.
Rich portrayed herself as the lone candidate with a history of supporting abortion rights, gay marriage, gay adoption, an increase in the minimum wage and stronger gun regulations.
"It's pretty clear that Rick Scott doesn't share these values and frankly there aren't any other candidates that have the track record that I have and yes, I'm referring to Charlie Crist," she said. "I stand on my record. I think he has rewritten his."
Crist shrugged off criticism from Rich for refusing to debate her, saying he is concentrating on defeating Scott.
"I don't know. I have all the respect in the world for Senator Rich. She's a wonderful person. She's a great Democrat. And she's a dear friend. I am focused on defeating Rick Scott. I've got to spend the energy doing what I need to do. It's a Herculean task. It's like David and Goliath financially, to tell you the truth. So I'm working every day to defeat Rick Scott because I want Floridians to be back in that mansion because if I win, they win. And if he wins, I think they lose," he said.