Team Governors takes on Team Senators at 2016 GOP presidential candidate forum in Orlando

“Conservative principles applied the right way can yield great results,” Jeb Bush told a chamber-of-commerce crowd assembled at a Disney World Convention Center.
“Conservative principles applied the right way can yield great results,” Jeb Bush told a chamber-of-commerce crowd assembled at a Disney World Convention Center. GETTY IMAGES

The governors think little of the senators but can’t get enough of Gov. Rick Scott — or at least of Scott’s influence over Florida’s prized Republican primary delegates.

The 2016 GOP presidential candidates and would-be candidates, all but one of them a sitting or former state chief executive, descended Tuesday on Disney World at Scott’s invitation to discuss the Florida governor’s favorite issues: jobs and the economy.

The contenders were short on specifics but long on their praise of Scott, who starred as the forum’s host and seemed to enjoy his elevated national profile.

“Anything I can do to suck up to him and his donors, by God, I’m going to do,” said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. He was only half joking.

Scott’s presence kept the focus on executive experience, an angle the governors present were only happy to play up.

“The next president has to do what we’ve done in Florida to turn around the nation’s economy,” Scott said by way of introduction.

The only senator scheduled to attend, Marco Rubio of Florida, was stuck on Capitol Hill voting on a revised version of the Patriot Act, so he sent a short video instead. Two other candidates from the Senate, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, were invited but said they couldn’t make it; a third — Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who launched his campaign Monday — wasn’t asked to come.

It was the six veterans of governor’s mansions who ruled the day, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush receiving the heartiest welcome from the chamber-of-commerce types who crowded the Convention Center at Disney’s Yacht Club Resort.

“Conservative principles applied the right way can yield great results,” said Bush, who held the prominent final speaking slot and used his time to contrast Tallahassee (good) to Washington (bad).

Former Gov. Rick Perry, a friend and friendly rival of Scott’s, was more explicit: “Executive leadership is incredibly important, and the only way you can get it is by livin’ it every day.”

In an apparent jab at Rubio, perhaps the most gifted communicator among the Republican candidates, Perry compared a leader to a pilot, noting that he flew to Rio de Janeiro from Miami and wanted someone in the cockpit with many trips under his belt.

“Now, you may know somebody who gives an incredible speech, man can have you on the edge of your seat with excitement ’cause they are an extraordinary lecturer about aerodynamics and meteorology and physics and why the airplane stays in the air and has 150 hours of flight time as a private pilot,” Perry said. “That’s not who I really want.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, insisting he will campaign in Florida if he runs for president, despite Bush’s and Rubio’s home-field advantage, trumpeted winning political battles against labor unions in his state.

“We not only put our fiscal house back in order — we made our government run better,” he said. “The proof is in the pudding. The facts don’t lie.”

Members of Team Governors, though, still swiped at each other. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal poked people — read Bush — who say critics of the Common Core educational standards are just against tougher school curricula. Jindal is a former Common Core supporter.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took on Huckabee, in particular, and the rest of the field in general, by calling for more debate on reforming expensive federal programs such as Medicare and Social Security that he said make up 71 percent of the national budget. Bush and Rubio have said the current retirement age needs to be raised. Huckabee referred to tinkering with Social Security as political suicide.

“If you don’t talk about what you’re going to do about 71 percent, in my view, you have no right to talk about the other 29 percent,” Christie countered.

Christie was the only invited presidential prospect to be interviewed by Scott. As president of the Republican Governors Association, Christie visited Florida to help Scott’s 2014 reelection campaign. Among Scott’s not-so-tough questions to Christie: “Why do you care so much?”

Once the primary field is settled, the campaign will be much more bruising for all the candidates — something Bush acknowledged after someone in the sympathetic audience asked him how he would shine among so many rivals.

“It’s a rambunctious deal. We have 75 people running, last time I checked,” Bush joked. “This isn’t Tiddlywinks we’re playing for.”

Tampa Bay Times writer Alex Leary contributed to this report.

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