Amid the last round of lackluster poll numbers for Gov. Rick Scott political consultant Tony Fabrizio in mid-December wrote a one-page memo where he argued that it was way too early for people to write off Scott's chances for a second term.
"Anyone who dismisses Governor Scott and his chances does so at their own peril. Governor Scott has nearly a year longer to reverse negative numbers similar to what the President had, therefore it seems irresponsible and hasty to count the governor out from making an equal, if not stronger, turn around."
Democrats this past weekend loudly announced that Scott's defeat will be their primary focus in the next cycle. The challenge of the Democrats, however, will be the ability of the party to have the resources to compete with what could be a very expensive race. And make no mistake: There are some in "Scott world" who are not troubled by former Gov. Charlie Crist as the nominee. That's because this will allow the campaign team to draw a clear contrast, especially when it comes to comparing how the state's economy fared under Crist and how it has fared under Scott.
It could also be argued that some of Scott's recent policy initiatives on tuition, voting and now teacher pay raises are aimed squarely at muting Crist on those same issues. Crist for example in 2009 signed the bill that gave universities in Florida the ability to raise tuition up to 15 percent a year until Florida's tuition rates reach the national average. Contrast that to Scott's firm insistence that tuition be held flat.
But the central question remains: What can Scott do on his own to turn things around in the coming year and heading into 2014?
The plain fact is that governors - unlike the president - have a much more limited fashion in which to engage with the public and convince them they are doing a good job.
One way is completely out of Scott's control: Show leadership through a crisis such as a natural disaster. Part of the enduring legacy - for example - of former Gov. Jeb Bush is the way he dealt with the wave of hurricanes that hit the state.
The difficulty for Scott rebuilding his brand and image in the second half of his term is that in many ways he's already been like three different governors.
Thanks to three different chiefs of staff he has approached governing, his agenda and his interaction with the press in distinct ways.
The first phase of Scott's governorship - where he was surrounded by people who helped his campaign including defacto chief of staff Mary Anne Carter - the governor staked out positions that excited the base of GOP voters who propelled him in the Republican primary and helped him get a narrow win over Democrat Alex Sink. He unveiled a budget that cut funding for education, he rejected billions in federal aid for high speed rail, he clashed with the Florida Legislature and his staff had a bunker mentality with the press.
The second phase under Steve MacNamara included a decision to have Scott engage in a two-way strategy with the press: Open up more to the mainstream media while also appearing on conservative talk radio shows to keep the base engaged. Also put in place was a more calculated strategy of trying to work with the Legislature. Take on the winnable battles like auto insurance reforms, avoid direct engagement (like in casino gambling) on issues that have an uncertain chance of success. Scott jettisoned parts of his campaign agenda such as pushing tough new laws on immigration. He became more accommodating to legislative initiatives and even embraced some of them such as the creation of Florida Polytechnic University. And Scott tried to undo the damage caused in the first phase by pushing for a funding increase in education.
Now with current chief of staff Adam Hollingsworth we have the third phase. Yet another strategy with the press. There are attempts to appear less rigid and more open to dialogue with opponents (hence the "discussions" over Obamacare with Washington D.C. or the dinner with top officials with the Florida Education Association.) And there's even a full 180-turn on hot topics such as voting where Scott - who signed the law that cut early voting days and defended it court - is now advocating an expansion of early voting beyond what was previously in place.
Moving ahead then here's the avenues left for Scott to try to change his trajectory with voters (outside the hope that the economy will continue to grow and that Scott will get the credit.)
SCOTT'S LEGISLATIVE AGENDA: Like it or not Scott's third year in office will in many ways revolve around what he accomplishes this spring. He will be judged by how much of his agenda is accepted or rejected by the GOP-controlled Legislature. Scott this week will present a budget that in many ways will attempt to highlight his new priorities, such as a flat across the board pay raise for teachers, a freeze on university tuition hikes and a cut in sales taxes for the purchase of equipment used in manufacturing. (More on this later this week)
But it should not be assumed that top lawmakers will bend to Scott's wishes as evidenced by the initial lackluster enthusiasm given Scott's teacher pay raise proposal. And we still don't have a clear idea on what will happen to the implementation of Obamacare, especially on expansion of Medicaid that is now an optional part of the federal health care overhaul. If Scott rejects expansion - which appears likely given his recent statements - will lawmakers buck him and dare the governor to veto it?
Scott's trump card, of course, is that he has the ability to shoot down any legislative proposals that he dislikes and he can use that as leverage to get what he needs.
Given Scott's recent populist turn on voting and teacher pay raises it will be interesting to see if he uses the veto pen as a way to distinguish himself from the Legislature. For example what does the governor do if a bill raising insurance rates for the 1.3 million customers of Citizens Property Insurance were to cross his desk on the eve of this year's hurricane season?
KEEP UP OPPOSITION TO THE PRESIDENT: In some ways Scott was actually better served by having President Barack Obama getting re-elected than having Republican Mitt Romney win. The down side to Obama's re-election is that the president and his allies have the capacity to assist the campaign of someone like newly-minted Democrat Crist. But Obama in the White House gives Scott - and the Republicans in general - something to rail about heading into 2014. You can see the narrative: "I stood up to the president on government controlled health care, we improved the economy without his help, we will not go along with his agenda on guns." You get the picture. And if Obama's numbers go underwater again then Scott gets to link Crist to the president.
SCOTT'S MEDIA STRATEGY: Largely unnoticed by the general public Scott's media strategy has in fact been altered with the entrance of new communications director Melissa Sellers. That's not to say that everything has been smooth sailing (witness the brouhaha over the return of Scott's dog Reagan.) But the press office's new strategy does appear to be one of cooperation (when it benefits the Scott agenda) and less direct confrontation. This means giving some in the press access in the hopes it will create a story that bolsters the governor.
This doesn't mean, however, that the press office is passive. Far from it.
The governor's office appears to be engaged in trying to get Scott's message out (which is amplified by the Republican Party of Florida, whose media operation is lead by former communications director Brian Burgess). It is then left to some of the agencies to push back against stories that the Scott administration does not agree with. Several agencies, for example, in recent months have put out press releases sent to all media outlets that attempt to debunk stories and even editorials that have appeared. (The changes at the Department of Environmental Protection being a key example.)
Meanwhile, the governor's press office is tracking media coverage even more closer than ever before. Emails show that the governor's entire staff is now getting "news alerts" that include snippets of stories and even tweets by capitol press corps reporters just moments after they hit the web and Twitter.
So will it all add up?
It's hard to say.
Part of the difficulty for those working for Scott is some of the missteps in the first two years have been self-inflicted. Democrats may not like some of Scott's policy initiatives but some of them have polled well with the general public i.e. drug testing for welfare recipients.
Those who have dealings with Scott will tell you up front that he studies details and takes times to understand complex policy issues.
But in many ways he has had to "grow up" in public and has drawn attention in ways he probably didn't intend (such as the incident with the King of Spain). In other instances, his staff did not appear to anticipate the political fallout over a decision (i.e. the cutting of the education budget, the signing of the Cuba-crackdown bill.)
The balancing act in the months ahead is whether Scott can find success with the Legislature and the economy and finally reverse his flat-lining poll numbers. Because even during a campaign there's only so much love money can buy.