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In Senate race, Florida governor in balancing act with Trump

FILE - In this April 9, 2018, file photo, Florida Gov. Rick Scott announces his bid to run for the U.S. Senate at a news conference in Orlando, Fla. Scott has been a cheerleader for President Donald Trump but hasn’t been as vocal with his support since deciding to run for the U.S. Senate. The two-term Republican governor has split with Trump on issues and won’t even say if he thinks Trump is doing a good job. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Asked this month whether President Donald Trump is doing a good job, Florida Gov. Rick Scott said he was happy with his friend’s decisions on offshore drilling and willingness to accelerate repairs to the Lake Okeechobee dike.

Asked the question again, Scott paused and said, “I can tell you, what I want is results, and those are the results I like.”

Scott’s hesitance to directly answer the question about the Republican president is a small but telling indicator of the balancing act he has performed since deciding to challenge Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

Trump enjoys strong support among Republicans in the state he won two years ago. But Democrats, who have struggled with turnout in nonpresidential elections, have been energized by Trump’s actions and plan to flock to the polls this year.

Scott’s current posture is a dramatic shift for the vocal critic of former President Barack Obama who enthusiastically backed Trump during the presidential election. Scott set up a Super PAC to help Trump during the campaign and has visited the president at the White House and Trump’s Mar-A-Lago resort in Palm Beach.

Trump publicly urged Scott to run for U.S. Senate, but recently the GOP governor has picked a careful path as he mounts an aggressive push to deny Nelson a fourth term.

He has split with Trump on certain issues, including immigration, but without criticizing the president. At some political events, he has barely mentioned Trump by name.

In April, Scott skipped a Trump round-table discussion of the tax-cut package in South Florida, heading out of state to raise money for his Senate campaign instead.

Brian Ballard, a top GOP lobbyist and fundraiser who knows both Scott and Trump well, said “very few people agree with the president 100 percent of the time.” But he added that Scott is already well-liked by Republican voters in Florida and can afford to disagree with the president.

“The governor has his own brand; he doesn’t need to grab the president’s coattails,” Ballard said. “He doesn’t have to disparage the president. He has a clean opportunity to be supportive of the president and continue to promote his own brand. If he disagrees, he will disagree in a way that is not disrespectful.”

Democratic strategist Steve Schale, however, pointed out that Scott successfully campaigned for governor in 2010 by linking the Democratic nominee to Obama.

“Scott really can’t run from Trump,” Schale said. “There’s too many clips and too much video, and I’m sure it will be making its way to TV screens.”

Scott, a former health care executive who is leaving the governor’s office because of term limits, is deliberate and tends to stick closely to scripted talking points during public events.

Recently, he has been cautious when it comes to the president:

— During a visit to Puerto Rico, a reporter asked Scott what the federal government should have done differently after Hurricane Maria. Puerto Ricans have complained that the U.S. government responded slowly after the storm battered the American territory. Scott said he didn’t know what he would have done differently but said communicating with federal authorities is important.

— Scott split with Trump over the administration’s policy of separating families at the border but did not sharply criticize the president. Instead, he sent a letter to federal authorities calling for an immediate end to the policy and demanded that state officials be told about children brought into Florida.

— At the beginning of hurricane season, Scott sidestepped questions about a Trump budget proposal to cut money for hurricane research. At an event in Miami, Scott said several federal agencies had been good partners.

After a meeting in Orlando with Puerto Rican hurricane evacuees, Democratic incumbent Nelson was asked about the governor’s relationship to Trump.

“They are great friends,” Nelson said. “Scott has been like two peas in a pod with Trump, and that is not going to serve Rick Scott very well when the people of Puerto Rico and other Hispanic cultures find out the closeness between the two of them, as evidenced by the Trump administration over and over again trying to put down Hispanics.”

Rick Wilson, a veteran Republican strategist from Tallahassee whose unrelenting criticism of Trump has made him a national celebrity, said Scott is smart to try to distance himself from the president on issues such as the child separation policy. But he was skeptical of how successful it would be for him.

“Scott knows what everyone else knows: This Trump policy polls in the ditch,” Wilson said. “It’s poison. He’s smart to do it now, but there’s still a lot of video of Rick Scott and Trump swapping spit.”

Copyright © 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.



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