TAMPA -- Gov. Rick Scott expected to get just a few minutes in the Republican National Convention spotlight. A seven-minute speech during Monday’s opening session, maybe a few appearances at a fundraiser or a reception.
Then Tropical Storm Isaac began churning in the Caribbean and made a turn toward the Florida peninsula.
Almost overnight, the unpopular governor kept somewhat on the fringes of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign was thrust front and center.
While no one will say it, the storm offers Scott an opening to many still skeptical Floridians to prove his mettle in a crisis. It’s Scott, not Romney, the state is seeing on TV twice a day. And it’s Scott’s voice that is being asked to reassure Florida and its 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.”
By now, Scott has almost completely abandoned his plans for RNC.
Saturday, Scott announced that his calendar for Sunday and Monday had been wiped of all convention-related events so he could focus on Isaac. He later extended that through Tuesday and said that he will remain away from the festivities as long as Florida is in the path of the storm or dealing with its effects.
He could fly to tour the Florida Keys as early as Monday.
“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.
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 might be struggling.
Instead of spending his free moment rubbing elbows with the GOP elite, Scott is 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.
On Sunday, Richard Conner, a Red Cross worker from Winston-Salem, N.C., pumped the governor’s hand as they posed for a picture next to the emergency communications vehicle Conner drives.
Scott is showing “more concern for the people of his state right now than he does for the RNC,” Conner said.
Though Scott got his hands dirty over the weekend, helping to load snacks and water onto a Red Cross truck, most of his time was spent on the phone, participating in meetings and conference calls and conducting 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. At times, his wire-frame glasses were perched on the tip of his nose.
Scott’s approach to Isaac also factors in some of his experience in the private sector as the owner of a hospital chain.
When Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida in 1992, four of his hospitals were in the path of the storm. Two of the hospitals were evacuated during the storm, a third was completely destroyed.
“You had to get organized and just take one problem at a time, you know, solve it, and get to the next one, solve it, and go to the next one, solve it,” Scott said.
He said he surrounded himself by smart people. He quickly mobilized nurses from other hospitals that he owned in West Florida to assist with relief efforts. He worked with related companies to get supplies and equipment moved it.
“Not one patient died,” he said. “We saved every patient.”
Now as governor, he is the face of the entire statewide response. Isaac is allowing the governor to show off the state, and his leadership abilities, in a way that no seven-minute speech could have.
“Let’s get to work, right?” he joked with officials at the Red Cross Regional Headquarters in Tampa at the end of a conference call with disaster response teams from across the state. “Somebody ran ads about that,” he said with a smile.