Alex Sink cheats in Florida debate. Will it matter?

During a commercial break in a debate with Florida gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott Monday night, Democrat Alex Sink received a text message from an aide. The 'foul' may be a touchstone for some voters.

By , Staff writer

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    Democratic candidate Alex Sink (l.) and Republican candidate Rick Scott engage during a gubernatorial debate Monday night at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla.
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Yes, Alex Sink cheated in Monday’s Florida gubernatorial debate. It was inadvertent, apparently – during a break, the Democratic candidate’s make-up artist handed her a smartphone showing a two-line message from a campaign aide.

Republican opponent Rick Scott was all over the mistake (“That was a foul, ref! She was offsides! Offsides!”) and talked about it after the debate went back on the air.

“Alex, you say you always follow the rules,” said Mr. Scott, a former health-care executive. “The rule was no one was supposed to give us messages during the break, and your campaign did."

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There was not much Ms. Sink could do there. She was caught red-handed with the offending text-capable communications device. After the debate, she fired the aide in question.

“After the debate tonight, one of my campaign advisers admitted he tried to communicate with me during one of the breaks... it was a foolish thing to do. It violated a debate agreement and I immediately removed him from the campaign,” said Sink in a statement.

This dust-up raises a number of interesting questions, such as:

  • It was OK to get make-up fixed during commercial breaks, but not OK to exercise a "lifeline" for help with an answer? Appearance is at least as important as substance during debates – look at what happened to the ill, pale Richard Nixon when he went up against a tan and rested JFK. Of course, the two sides agreed on those rules, so maybe pancake makeup and a little hair gel were priorities. It gets hot up there under lights and televised pressure, after all.
  • Will this matter? After all, small things can loom large in voters’ minds following a debate. All anyone remembers from the 1988 vice-presidential debate is the “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” line delivered by Lloyd Bentsen to Dan Quayle, for instance. Plus, cheating in debates – or at least getting caught cheating at debates – is rare. So it’s possible Sink might suffer some damage at the polls.

But it’s also possible that she won’t, and that Florida voters who watched the debate instead will take away an image of two aggressive candidates flinging mud at each other by the kayakful. The debate, hosted by CNN’s John King and St. Petersburg Times reporter Adam Smith, did not have a tightly scripted format, and both Sink and Scott took advantage of that to continually return to their opponent’s perceived weaknesses.

Republican Scott tried to link Democratic Sink to the politics of the Obama administration, and hammered at her role as a “Tallahassee insider,” since her current job is chief financial officer for the state. Sink, in turn, went after Scott’s role as head of Columbia/HCA, a hospital firm that had to pay almost $2 billion in fines to the federal government to settle charges of Medicaid and Medicare fraud.

As for the now-infamous two lines of text sent to Sink by the aforementioned ex-aide, they dealt with a charge made by Scott that Sink (who used to work for what’s now Bank of America) refused to take responsibility for employees luring seniors into risky investments.

“You can’t lecture me about fraud,” said Sink, in reply.

As for the context here, the two candidates are locked in a dead heat. Republicans probably would have won handily had not the wealthy Scott defeated state Attorney General Bill McCollum in the GOP primary, points out University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato in his Crystal Ball prognostication website.

It’s possible the GOP wave will carry Scott to victory. But “the [Republican] party is trying to paper over deep splits, and Democrat Alex Sink, who would become the Sunshine State’s first woman governor, now has a 50-50 shot in this critical mega-state,” wrote Sabato earlier this month.

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