TAMPA -- When Tropical Storm Isaac churned through the Caribbean and took aim at the Florida peninsula, it carried with it new risk and opportunity for Gov. Rick Scott.
The unpopular governor, who had been kept on the fringes of the Republican National Convention, suddenly was thrust into the national spotlight — not for hosting the Republican National Convention but for managing the storm.
Almost overnight, the governor was expected to prove his mettle in a crisis. He followed the pattern of other governors before him, holding televised briefings at the emergency operations center to update the public and deliver early storm warnings and advice.
But with both the storm and thousands of delegates heading to Tampa Bay, Scott stepped it up a notch. He cancelled his meet and greet with fundraisers Sunday evening, pulled out of the economic development events he planned to host on Monday, cancelled all his activities through Tuesday and withdrew plans to give a seven-minute prime time speech originally scheduled for Monday’s opening session. He may return Thursday the final night of the convention, but it all depends on Isaac.
“Floridians are getting to see Rick Scott at his best right now,’’ said Lenny Curry, chairman of the Florida Republican Party on Monday afternoon. “Rick Scott as the leader, the problem solver.’’
Scott’s decision to cancel his events helped persuade convention organizers to cancel Monday’s RNC events too, Curry said. “Nobody this week wanted to say we can’t hold events on Monday. He stepped forward and said I am not participating Sunday and Monday, because I’m focused on citizens of Florida and people who travel to Florida.”
It may prove to be Isaac’s silver lining, said Allison DeFoor, a Scott advisor and a Florida Republican Party leader. "Leadership always trumps politics,’’ he said, noting that Isaac may turn out “a godsend,’’ for the governor’s sagging poll numbers.
It is, in fact, Scott — not Romney — who Floridians are often seeing on TV. And it’s Scott’s voice that is reassuring Florida and thousands of convention guests as Isaac impacts the coastline.
“We do hurricanes well and we do hospitality well,” he told CNN’s Candy Crowley Sunday morning. “And this week, we’ve got to show both sides.”
Through the weekend, Scott operated out of an emergency operations center in Tampa set up by the RNC officials. On Monday, Scott returned to Tallahassee where he could work from the state’s emergency command center and monitor the progress of the storm, which was expected to make landfall on Tuesday between Pensacola and Mobile, Alabama.
“As much as it was an honor to be asked to give a speech at the convention — and I was going to talk about how well our state is doing — my job is to make sure that this is a safe place for everybody that is either a resident or is a visitor of our state,” Scott said Sunday.
Curry wouldn’t speculate on whether the perception of Scott has improved because of his response to the storm, but he did take a shot at former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist.
Crist used the eve of the RNC to pen an op-ed piece in the Tampa Bay Times endorsing President Barack Obama. It was then followed by an invitation for Crist to speak at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte next week . Many Republicans believe it is the first sign that Crist is posturing to challenge Scott in the 2014 race for governor.
Though Scott is still a relative political novice, he’s savvy enough to know to avoid the party atmosphere of the RNC while Floridians elsewhere are struggling.
Instead of spending his free moment rubbing elbows with the GOP elite, Scott has spent the last several days calling state lawmakers, small-town mayors and agency heads to make sure they are prepared. He gives them his personal cell phone number and insists they call him if there is anything they need.
He briefed President Obama on Sunday, who wanted to make sure the federal officials were offering all the assistance they could, and he has spoken daily with Mitt Romney.
The governor is showing “more concern for the people of his state right now than he does for the RNC,” said Richard Conner, a Red Cross worker from Winston-Salem, N.C.
Over the weekend, Scott loaded snacks and water onto a Red Cross truck, took part in meetings and conference calls and conducted media interviews. Wearing a light-blue button down shirt with the Florida seal, khaki pants and hiking boots, he jotted thoughts down on notebook paper using a bold, permanent marker.
Scott said his approach to Isaac is shaped in part by his experience in the private sector as the owner of a hospital chain when Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida in 1992. Four of his company’s hospitals were in the path of the storm. Two of the hospitals were evacuated and a third was completely destroyed.
“You had to get organized and just take one problem at a time,” Scott said. He said he quickly mobilized nurses from other hospitals in other parts of the state to assist with relief efforts and worked with related companies to get supplies and equipment.
“Not one patient died,” he said.
The governor, often awkward in front of a podium, was clearly comfortable in his storm response role.
“Let’s get to work, right?” he joked with officials on a conference call with him at the Red Cross Regional Headquarters in Tampa, a reference to his 2010 gubernatorial campaign slogan.
“Somebody ran ads about that,” he said with a smile.