As Gov. Rick Scott tours the state this week honoring military veterans, he is marking the contributions of a bloc of voters that could help in his difficult re-election fight.
Scott, who served in the Navy, created the "Governor?s Veterans Service Award" in March and is handing out the awards to hundreds of veterans during events that started Monday and end Thursday, the day before the July 4 holiday.
"The courage and sacrifice these veterans displayed while serving our country has contributed to the freedoms and opportunities Florida families benefit from every day," Scott said in a prepared statement following one of the ceremonies.
The outreach has not been limited to giving the award. Scott showed up for other events last week wearing a "Navy" cap. And on Tuesday, Scott's campaign released a Web video with a veteran talking about the state's "vet-friendly" environment and why he's supporting the governor.
"What we've had the last few years with Rick Scott is good leadership," says Staff Sgt. Luke Murphy, who lost a leg in an explosion in Iraq. "What we had before Rick Scott was not good leadership."
Lawmakers helped Scott with his pitch this spring by approving the "Florida GI Bill," which expands university tuition waivers provided to veterans, pays for military and guard base improvements and aims to increase employment opportunities for veterans while trying to convince more of them to move to the state.
Scott's pitch is aimed at a group that could help him beat former Gov. Charlie Crist, his expected Democratic opponent, in the November election. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that an average of 1.6 million veterans lived in Florida from 2008 to 2012, the most recent figures available. That accounts for about 10.8 percent of state civilians age 18 or older in 2012.
"They tend to be older, and they also tend to be high-turnout voters and conservative," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.
There's one other advantage for Scott highlighting veterans right now, MacManus said. It tacitly underscores the problems at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which has been roiled by a scandal over health-care treatment for former service members. Scott has been a loud critic of the VA.
"By him promoting things for veterans, it in a way lets him contrast himself with Washington," she said.
Unlike some of Scott's other tours in the wake of the legislative session -- which promoted tax and fee cuts approved by the Legislature, the governor's efforts on college affordability and his plans for early-learning and foster-care programs -- the veterans' tour is being handled by Scott's official office instead of the campaign.
His office says that's because of the role Scott is fulfilling.
"The governor is attending events this week with the [Florida] Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Military Affairs to honor veterans in his official capacity as he has done throughout his term," said John Tupps, a Scott spokesman.
But Democrats, unsurprisingly, do not view it the same way.
"Rick Scott is just shameless, using taxpayer funds to campaign for re-election while using veterans as a political football," said Joshua Karp, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party. "Florida'?s veterans deserve better. If Scott really cared about Florida'?s veterans, he would have accepted federal funding to expand access to health care for over 40,000 veterans who currently lack it."
In 2013, Scott supported expanding Medicaid to cover more Floridians, but the Legislature refused, and Democrats argue that the governor has not pushed aggressively enough to prod lawmakers to accept federal money aimed at growing the program.