TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Gov. Rick Scott plans to spend millions on his re-election. Until then, his most valuable tool doesn't require his campaign to spend a cent.
Scott has been traveling Florida in his official capacity to promote his successes during the last legislative session. While it's a lot easier to sign bills in Tallahassee - where he'd get a larger but more cynical group of reporters covering him - getting on his private plane and doing it elsewhere assures local television coverage in state's largest media markets.
It's not a new idea - his predecessors, Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush, did the same. The free, positive attention Scott gets promoting accomplishments is a political advantage he has over Crist or any other Democrats who might challenge him in next year's election and it's all set up by a state staff.
Scott has traveled from Tallahassee for bill signings, a "victory tour" to highlight a manufacturing tax cut, a "celebration" tour to point out money for the disabled, and a "pep rally" tour to tout teacher raises. That's on top of job announcements and other events designed to get free publicity.
"These things are done with an eye cast to November '14," said David Johnson, a Republican political strategist. "The idea is to get media so that you're going into people's living rooms."
Tallahassee is far down the list of Florida's largest media markets. And having the governor around is nothing new to the reporters covering the capital. While the capital press corps will cover bill signings and announcements, they won't give the governor special attention and they're more likely to ask him tougher questions about his policies and positions.
But when the governor shows up in Jacksonville, Orlando, Miami, Tampa and elsewhere, there's more excitement about covering him, especially for television stations. Scott's team can also better steer positive coverage by focusing events on specific issues like job creation and education.
And it works. Scott proposed in January that the state budget include $36 million to help reduce a waiting list for disabled Floridians seeking care. The Legislature agreed and put the money in the budget passed last month. The budget item was largely ignored by the capital press corps. If mentioned at all, it was a line or two in overall budget coverage.
But then Scott scheduled a tour to "celebrate" the money with stops in the Orlando area, Jacksonville and Fort Myers.
More than three weeks after the Legislature passed the budget and more than a week after Scott signed it, a Jacksonville television station devoted more than two minutes on its newscast to his visit with a feel-good story showing Scott interacting with disabled participants and video of parents praising him. The story didn't mention that Scott previously made severe cuts to the same program.
Similarly, an Orlando newscast labeled Scott's visit there last month "major news" and began it's nearly two-minute segment by saying that Scott "just announced" the funding despite it being secure in the budget three weeks earlier.
Scott said it was time for Floridians to "brag more" about job growth and education.
"My job is to promote the state," he said.
The Florida Democratic Party said voters will see through the attempt to win them over.
"With his approval rating stuck in the thirties, it's unsurprising that Rick Scott has been desperately stumping the state, trying to persuade voters he's on their side. But voters aren't buying it, just like they haven't been buying for the past three years," said party spokesman Joshua Karp.
Still, in a state where 30-second ads cost a bundle, the free television coverage, particularly on issues ignored by print media, is a big win for the governor. And because it's presented by independent news organizations, viewers see it with a less skeptical eye than a campaign ad.
And he can also choose the best markets to match the issue, like traveling to the Pensacola area to sign a bill that requires care for infants who survive abortions, an issue that's better received in the conservative Panhandle than South Florida.
The governor's media strategy is a smart move to boost his approval rating, which has lagged since he took office, said Jamie Miller, a Republican strategist.
"When you're starting that low, I think people want to see you doing something positive - anything positive," Miller said, adding that the goal is to get a voter to think "He's not only doing something positive, he's doing something I agree with. Maybe I ought to take another look at him."
And it's the perfect time to promote himself. Former Sen. Nan Rich is the only major Democratic candidate who has announced she will challenge him, and her focus is more on raising her low public profile. Otherwise, there's little political activity in the state. Crist and Alex Sink, the former state chief financial officer who lost to Scott in 2010, are both considering challenges but haven't started campaigns yet.
"This summer, now that the session is over with and there's not a lot of political news, the governor has the playing field to himself and they're very wise to take advantage of that," Johnson said.
Scott did a five-city tour to promote teacher raises he convinced the Legislature to approve. The stops were in the state's five largest media markets. The events looked a lot like campaign events, but that's another advantage. If they were campaign events, Scott couldn't hold them in public schools. As official events, he could.
The events also help the governor gather video, photos and news clips that can be distributed through social media, email and other formats, as well as be used in political advertising next year.
When Scott visited a Mitsubishi Powers Systems Americas Inc. facility in Orlando for an official visit about employment numbers on March 18, a slickly shot campaign video from the event was posted on Scott's political website.
The practice isn't new and it's not just limited to governors. It's no coincidence that President Barack Obama began making more official trips to Florida just before the 2012 election.
Oddly, though, the Republican Party of Florida this week criticized Crist for doing the same thing Scott is doing now, calling it taxpayer funded campaigning. The difference is that Crist, like Bush, would use a state plane to fly around the state promoting legislative successes and Scott, a multimillionaire who spent $73 million of his and his family's money to get elected, got rid of the state plane and uses his own.
Still, other state resources go into the trips - security details and staff time and travel expenses and then the banners, equipment rental and other items needed to stage a made-for-TV event.
The other difference, of course, is that Crist is now thinking about challenging Scott to reclaim his old job.
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