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Florida governor race: why bitter contest is heating up ahead of debate

Florida Gov. Rick Scott will debate former Gov. Charlie Crist Friday amid renewed allegations of personal finance disclosure violations against Scott.

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    Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott, running for re-election, talks with reporters after visiting a campaign office to meet volunteers and make phone calls on Florida's primary election day in Tampa, Florida in this file photo taken August 26.
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The nation’s marquee race for governor has already been long and nasty, and now the Florida campaign is entering a final phase that includes televised debates and new efforts to cast doubt on the candidates.

As Gov. Rick Scott (R) of Florida prepares to face off against former Gov. Charlie Crist (D) under the TV lights, the Republican has been hit with a Democratic lawsuit arguing that he’s violated state requirements that he disclose his personal finances.

The issue isn’t a new one for Governor Scott, a multi-millionaire who has put much of his fortune in a blind trust. And the election campaign includes a host of other issues voters care about, from education to immigration. (Friday’s debate, the first of three, will be aired Friday night on the Spanish-language Telemundo network.)

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But the questions about Scott’s money and his transparency are playing their own important role in a campaign where both candidates have big flaws in the eyes of voters.

Democrats are attacking Scott as “too shady for the Sunshine State” – highlighting how he made his millions at a hospital company from which he resigned as chief executive officer before the firm pleaded guilty to Medicare fraud and other crimes. Mr. Crist, meanwhile, has been tarred for shifting wherever political winds blow him – he was a Republican governor, then an independent candidate for Senate, and now he’s seeking new life as a Democrat.

“When fewer than four in 10 voters think both the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor are honest, you know this has been one of the nastiest races in state history," pollster Peter Brown said in a statement upon the release of a recent public opinion poll conducted by Quinnipiac University. "They have been throwing so much mud that they both are covered in it."

The September poll found 49 percent of likely voters saying Crist is not honest and trustworthy (versus 37 percent with a more charitable view), while Scott suffers from an almost identical verdict (51 to 39 percent) on that question.

Recent polls mostly show Crist with a small lead, but the race remains a tossup as ad spending soars well above $50 million.

The new lawsuit over his personal finances was filed this week by George Sheldon, a Democrat seeking to be Florida’s next Attorney General.

The lawsuit alleges that, in violation of a “Sunshine Amendment” in the state constitution, Scott has not disclosed a full list of his assets worth more than $1,000.

“Rick Scott has employed and managed a complex web of investment vehicles which appears to include at least six trusts, numerous partnerships, investment funds, and accounts,” Mr. Sheldon says. Scott doesn’t include all these entities on his financial disclosure, Sheldon adds, so “it is impossible to detect and evaluate the potential conflicts of interest that may exist or develop.”

A recent Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times article also examined Scott’s disclosure filings, and concluded his state disclosure forms differ substantially from financial information he provided to the Internal Revenue Service and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

And despite the name “blind trust,” the article also offered evidence that Scott is aware of at least some of the trust’s holdings, due to SEC-required signatures.

The Scott campaign, in a statement published by the Miami Herald, responded that “the Governor is in full compliance with both federal and state reporting requirements, which are different.”

In Scott’s favor, the Quinnipiac poll found that a sizable majority of likely voters (58 percent) see the governor as having strong leadership qualities, versus 46 percent who held that view on Crist.

Scott has also been presiding over an improving post-recession economy since he took office in 2011, with falling unemployment and a housing market recovery.

Far and away, voters’ top issue as they prepare to vote is the economy and jobs, according to a statewide poll released Thursday by the University of North Florida.

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