Florida Governor's Race Draws To Fiery Close

Florida's gubernatorial candidates — Republican Rick Scott and Democrat Alex Sink — had a lively debate Monday night in the last days of the campaign.

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Florida also has a successful business person running for governor, one who like Meg Whitman has poured tens of millions of dollars of his own money into the race. He's Rick Scott, the former head of the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain. Scott is running on the Republican ticket against Democrat Alex Sink, Florida's chief financial officer.

The two met last night in a debate, and as NPR's Greg Allen reports, the topics of the evening were taxes and fraud.

GREG ALLEN: There's really just one thing Democrat Alex Sink wants to be sure voters know about her opponent, Republican Rick Scott. It's that shortly after he left as CEO, the company he founded, Columbia/HCA, paid the largest fine ever for Medicare fraud. And she's produced a series of campaign ads making just that point.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #1: Take it from Florida's police and law enforcement...

Unidentified Man #2: Rick Scott just can't be trusted with Floridians' money.

Unidentified Woman #1: Scott's company was guilty of the largest Medicare fraud in U.S. history.

ALLEN: Scott has worked hard to change the subject and calls himself a successful businessman who knows how to create jobs. In his ads he has two words for Alex Sink: Obama liberal.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #3: Sink backed the government health care takeover, cutting 500 billion from Medicare. She backed the failed stimulus bill, which created debt, not jobs.

Ms. SINK: Barack Obama has the right message and the right solutions.

Unidentified Man #3: Wrong solutions, Alex.

ALLEN: Floridians have gotten plenty used to seeing those ads. Sink and her allies have spent well over $20 million on the race. Scott has blanketed the state with ads for months, using some $60 million of his own money. Last night, the gubernatorial candidates met in their final debate in Tampa and picked up in person where their campaign ads left off.

Sink, a former banker, angrily rejected Scott's claims that if elected, she would raise taxes.

Ms. SINK: That is just a false charge that we've heard over and over and over again from Rick Scott. Every one of your ads has been claimed as being full of lies and falsehoods by the newspapers.

Mr. RICK SCOTT (Republican Gubernatorial Candidate, Florida): That's untrue. You're going to increase the pay for state workers, okay, how are you going to pay for that?

Ms. SINK: Rick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCOTT: You know, you want to expand rail service all across the state, how are you going to pay for that?

ALLEN: Sink said she would not seek to raise the pay for state workers until the budget situation improves. On high speed rail, Scott said he would put $2 billion Florida received in federal stimulus money on hold until he could study the project further. It was a contentious hour with Sink accusing Scott of making up facts and not being trustworthy. It was Sink, however, who violated the debate rules, reading a text message from a campaign aide during a break.

In recent weeks, Scott has worked to shake off the charges that he was involved in fraud at Columbia/HCA by levying similar charges against Sink. In last night's debate he said while she was the head of Nation Bank's Florida division, the company's tellers misled senior citizens into buying risky securities. The whistleblowing attorney who brought the case has come forward and said Sink had nothing to do with it. But that hasn't stopped Scott.

Mr. SCOTT: Your tellers were paid kickbacks, okay? Your tellers were paid kickbacks...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCOTT: Okay, you think it's funny for these seniors that you sent from the safe end deposits to risky ones. All right. You were sued, your bank was sued and you paid fines. That's called fraud. So I have a whole list. You want to talk about fraud, I can give you a list of them.

Ms. SINK: Is it my opportunity to respond?

Unidentified Man #3: It is.

Ms. SINK: Good. I'd be glad to. You can't lecture me about fraud.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ALLEN: With just a week until the election, polls show the Florida gubernatorial race a dead heat. In its handicapping of the race, The New York Times' 538 blog gives Sink a one-tenth of one percentage point lead.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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