Tropical Storm Karen, Gov. Rick Scott — the polls, perils and pluses of disaster

As Tropical Storm Karen churned offshore, Gov. Rick Scott swiftly ditched an annual state Republican fundraiser even though he’s an embattled incumbent.

Scott’s move Friday was a stark reminder of the grave threats Florida faces and the fact that no fundraiser can rival the big, potential political payouts of natural disasters.

Calamities and their threat give chief executives a chance to portray a commander-in-chief moment — in real-time on TV — to show how they safeguard and help the public.

That image helped President Barack Obama last year, President George W. Bush in 2004 and could eventually benefit Scott, who suffers from low poll numbers now, by 2014.

Hours after Karen showed signs of weakening Friday, Scott updated his late-released schedule to add five public events and announced he wouldn’t attend the annual Orlando fundraiser. He appeared via Skype Friday.

“I’m here because it’s the right place to be to make sure our state is safe,” Scott said from Tallahassee.

Karen doesn’t look like much of a Florida threat, but Scott has one more year of hurricane season before Election Day. And, political considerations aside, governors can’t afford to not always prepare for the worst.

“Managing the state in a time like this would be Rick in his element — he’s a numbers guy; he’d want to make sure every detail is accounted for,” said Alan Levine, who had worked for Scott in the 1990s at the mammoth Columbia/HCA hospital chain.

Levine became a de-facto hurricane-response expert as a state hospital and health chief for two governors of two storm-prone states: Florida’s Jeb Bush and, then, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal.

“No one wants disasters, but they’re a reality of governing,” Levine said. “Most people don’t see what government is doing for their lives, but with a storm you get to see what government is doing in real time.”

Jeb Bush won national acclaim in his last two years as governor managing eight hurricanes that damaged the state.

After the first two hurricanes in 2004, Bush’s job-approval index rating jumped from +1 to +32, with 62 percent of Florida voters favoring his performance and only 30 percent disfavoring it, a Quinnipiac University survey showed at the time.

Bush’s brother, President George W. Bush, realized an even more tangible political benefit: A jump over his then-rival John Kerry.

Bush trailed Kerry by 6 percentage points in the summer. But after hurricanes Charley and Frances hit Florida, Bush led Kerry by 8 point – a huge 14-point swing in six weeks – according to a Sept. 23, 2004 Quinnipiac survey.

Bush never trailed again, and won Florida, which he visited after each of the election-year hurricanes.

“In 2004, we suspended the Bush re-elect campaign’s regular activities no less than four times due to hurricanes and storm activity,” said Brett Doster, Florida executive director for the president’s re-election at the time.

“Neither campaign, to their credit did anything overtly to exploit peoples’ suffering, but the crises provided significant opportunities for the president to come to Florida and look strong in a time that required action.”

The following year, the opposite happened to Bush.

Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005. The president’s administration, along with Louisiana’s governor and New Orleans mayor, looked feckless. And the president never seemed to find his footing.

When Hurricane Gustav threatened in 2008, Louisiana’s newly elected Jindal oversaw the mammoth and nationally-watched evacuation of New Orleans. Levine was by his side as was spokeswoman Melissa Sellers, who now works as Scott’s communications director.

“Natural disasters afford the opportunity to help or hurt incumbents,” said Peter A. Brown, Quinnipiac’s assistant polling director.

“They give the incumbent an opportunity to demonstrate leadership qualities or not demonstrate leadership qualities,” he said.

Quinnipiac hasn’t polled Florida for months, but its last survey in June showed Scott trailing potential rival and former Gov. Charlie Crist by 10 percentage points. A Florida survey this week from Public Policy Polling indicated Scott would lose by 12 points if the election were held now.

But the election is in a year.

Crist, who stood by Bush’s side in 2004 and 2005 as Florida’s attorney general, hasn’t announced yet. Scott plans to have up to $100 million, a good portion of which will be used to remind voters about Crist’s reversals as he flip-flopped from a Republican to a Democrat.

Most importantly, when it comes to storms and the politics behind them, hurricane season isn’t over. Florida will have one more to go before the 2014 polls open.

Tampa Bay Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report