WEST PALM BEACH — Rick Scott is the lanky, lackluster high school athlete who wooed one of the pep squad girls. He is the son of a truck driver and a store clerk who grew up in public housing and now lives in an $11.5 million waterfront estate. He is the political novice who upended the Republican establishment to secure the nomination for governor and who now stands at the cusp of potentially securing the highest office in the fourth-largest state in the country.
All of which is a long way of saying no one expected any of this.
Scott's oratory is simple, unsoaring words. He had little backing, before his primary upset of Bill McCollum, within his own party. He has no government experience and has lived in Florida just long enough to constitutionally qualify for the governor's office. His success has been built solely on his spectacularly successful though notably checkered business record and a promise to a desperate state that he will create jobs — 700,000 of them, he says, in seven years — and bring prosperity back.
"I've always built companies, built jobs," he said in a campaign stop. "That's why people are going to vote for me."
Scott, 57, has run an extremely disciplined campaign that rarely veers from his message, which is much more a get-the-people-back-to-work mantra than fiery tea party rhetoric or divisive preaching on social issues.
The narrative presented by the campaign is unwavering: He hails from humble roots in Kansas City, Mo., clawed his way to the top of the business world starting with a pair of doughnut shops, realized the American dream and now wants to make sure everyone else does too.
Scott has so far foregone the traditional round of meetings with newspaper editorial boards and has given few in-depth interviews, preferring to get his message out in campaign stops and television ads. His campaign declined requests by The Associated Press for an interview with the candidate. When he does talk to reporters, largely in gaggles after campaign events, he launches into snippets of his platform he's recited so often they seem rehearsed.
Polls, though tight, show Scott with a receptive following in his fight against Alex Sink, the Democratic nominee. His business past — and the massive corporate fraud that occurred under his watch — keeps raising questions, but those who relish his message are undeterred.
"He's accessible, he's real, he is one of us," said Billie Tucker, a Jacksonville businesswoman and tea party leader who met Scott about five years ago and worked with him during his fight against President Obama's health care plan. "I've been around leaders all of my career and I really saw a leader in Rick Scott."
Scott has earned a reputation as a workaholic who e-mailed his employees before dawn. He is known for his thriftiness, keeping a budget with his wife even as his salary reached six figures and cautioning subordinates against waste, even of a single sheet of paper. He offers a glimpse of his politics in his yellow Labrador retriever, whom he named Reagan. He is tall and thin, bald and piercingly blue-eyed, with a nearly unflappably calm speaking voice. He has said if he died today he absolutely would find a place in heaven.
The candidate's mother says her son — the second of five children — set himself apart at an early age with his desire to be first and to be best. Esther Scott said her son's studiousness is reflected in one particular memory from his adolescence.
"All my children were outside playing," she said, "but Rick's studying at the dining room table."
Scott's mother and biological father divorced when he was a toddler. Scott didn't have contact with him, always considering the man his mother remarried and who adopted him as his father.
In the yearbook from his senior year of high school, Scott is seen with his hair neatly parted, nearly expressionless in his portrait. His modest upbringing seems to have inspired his interest in business, recorded in the same yearbook, where he is pictured posing with other officers of an entrepreneurial club.
"I was not going to be broke," he said in an interview published in Louisville magazine in 1994.
Scott didn't always exude such certainty. In high school, when he took interest in one of the pep squad girls, he sent a friend to see if she'd be interested in a date.
"Rick thought I was really cute and wanted to ask me out but he was too shy," said the former Ann Holland.
It took Scott a week to muster the courage to call Holland and ask her to a movie the following night. She broke her own rule of accepting last-minute dates and fell for the ease with which she could talk to him.
Eight months later, Scott proposed while parked outside a restaurant on a freezing-cold Christmas Eve in 1970.
The wedding was a Thursday-night ceremony at a Baptist church and a reception at an adjacent hall. There was no band, no music and no dinner, just punch, cake and nuts. The honeymoon was the drive from Kansas City to Newport, R.I., where Scott was reporting for Navy duty.
The rest of Scott's life unfurled like this: college at the University of Missouri-Kansas City while working at a grocery store; his first try at business with a couple of Flavor Maid doughnut shops; law school at Southern Methodist University; a job at one of Dallas' biggest law firms; and two daughters, Jordan and Allison.
And then came the decision that changed his life: Scott made a bid to purchase the hospital chain HCA Inc. in 1987 and when it was rejected, started his own company, Columbia, with his entire life savings of $125,000 and the backing of billionaire Richard Rainwater. Columbia began buying up hospitals, eventually absorbing HCA, and became the world's biggest health care company.
That experience — his greatest asset in an election year ruled by the economy — has also has raised serious questions.
Scott was ousted by Columbia/HCA's board in 1997, days after FBI agents served warrants to search company facilities in six states and federal officials warned executives could face criminal charges. After his departure, the company pleaded guilty and paid a $1.7 billion fine to settle charges of Medicare and Medicaid fraud — the largest such penalties in the programs' history.
He left Columbia/HCA with a $9.9 million severance package and stock and options valued at about $300 million.
Scott insists he did nothing wrong and denies knowing anything of any wrongdoing at Columbia. Still, he says he accepts responsibility for anything that occurred under his leadership and says the lessons he learned — trust your employees but verify what they do — would help him as governor.
Since then, Scott has been involved in a variety of businesses, but it wasn't until he founded Conservatives for Patients' Rights last year and began starring in a series of commercials speaking against the Obama health plan, that he emerged again on the national scene.
Whether that was an orchestrated precursor to his gubernatorial run is not known. He got little attention when he announced his candidacy in April, with McCollum considered an easy win, but sunk $50 million of his own money into the campaign and won the nomination.
Party leaders who opposed Scott now have largely made peace with him. He says his own burst of personal financing means he won't owe anyone anything when he takes office. He doesn't appear to entertain the thought of losing, a possibility unimaginable in his unfailingly optimistic outlook, colored by a lifetime of getting everything he's ever wanted.