TAMPA — In 2010, Florida first lady Ann Scott was thrown into the deep end of politics and public exposure as the wife of Rick Scott, the candidate and then the governor.
For a Texas girl from a working-class family who had lived mostly a private life as a homemaker and mother, it was a tough adjustment.
Suddenly, with no experience in politics, she was first lady of the nation’s fourth-largest state, the wife of a governor who seemed always at the center of controversy.
And yet, she said in an interview this week, “I was terrified of public speaking from the time I was in the sixth grade. I had to work very hard to overcome that.”
But this year, with her husband in a re-election battle perhaps as tough as his 2010 election campaign, Ann Scott has found a comfort zone in the political spotlight.
Unlike 2010, she’s making public appearances on her own, sometimes as the candidate’s wife and sometimes as first lady. She reaches out to constituencies he has challenges with, including women and mothers.
The Scott re-election team has raised her profile, scheduling her heavily with campaign events and official governor’s office events designed to get news coverage and push the campaign’s message. Those include at least three appearances in the Tampa area last week.
“I still get nervous,” she said in the interview. But, “It’s a little easier this time. I had the opportunity to kind of grow into my role as first lady. … I’ve had the opportunity to get a little comfortable with it.”
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It’s a good time for Ann Scott, 62, to make that transition, because her husband could use the assist.
Folksy and unpretentious despite 42 years of marriage to a man who became a multimillionaire CEO, she helps soften and humanize his image, political experts say.
The Scott campaign “knows they need to make him more likeable. That’s what she can help do,” said University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett.
“He has been seen as sort of a robotic businessman with an empathy gap — he didn’t seem like he cared about the average Floridian. She can make him seem like someone who cares. She can reach out particularly to female voters, talking about what a good husband and father he is.”
Rick Scott noted the change in his wife’s role in comments to reporters recently when asked how his 2014 campaign differs from 2010.
“Ann’s traveling on her own more this time. That’s probably the biggest change,” he said. “She’s not traveling with me as much this time.”
Veteran Republican political consultant Arlene DiBenigno, who’s close to the Scotts, said Ann Scott “has come into her own” in this campaign in a role like that played in 2010 by the governor’s late mother, Esther Scott.
An enthusiastic campaigner, Esther Scott died in 2012 at age 84.
Ann Scott “had never been exposed to politics four years ago,” DiBenigno said. “But she’s found her comfort zone. She’s warm, inviting, and people trust her. She helps him connect with everyday people.”
In the interview, Ann Scott said she stays away from publicly discussing or taking stands on political issues.
“I leave policy questions to the governor,” she said when asked during a visit to new mothers at Tampa General Hospital about the state’s failure to expand the Medicaid program.
“Even if we talk about something, I support his decision. He may ask me my opinion about something and I may share it, but I typically don’t even know what happens until it happens.”
But she’s clearly learned the campaign’s main message — that Scott has rescued Florida from economic decline.
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Asked about her heightened campaign profile, she agreed, “I’m definitely getting out to share the Florida turnaround story,” and then she transitioned into a lengthy recitation of the statistics on jobs and unemployment that Rick Scott uses in every public appearance.
Her appearances focus on subjects that fit her status as a new grandmother — early learning, reading, literacy and child and family health. The Scotts have seen their first three grandchildren born to their two daughters since he was elected.
Her Tampa General Hospital visit Tuesday, an official governor’s office function, was one in a series of visits she’s making to new mothers in hospitals, where she hands out copies of her baby journal for recording childhood milestones. The book also has tips on reading to children and healthy recipes.
She offered grandmotherly advice to moms just out of the delivery room.
“Just rest when you can — they have their days and nights mixed up for a while,” she told Caitlyn Zampitella of Tampa, whose new son sleeps all day and wants attention all night.
The next day, she hit on two other campaign themes in a speech to the Florida Federation of Republican Women at an upscale restaurant atop a local hotel.
She described the humble beginnings she and her future husband shared, financial difficulties as a young married couple, then talked about their grandchildren.
The couple started out, she said, in “a tiny apartment with little furniture and no money to speak of,” with crates for bedside tables, a Coleman cooler for a dining room table and sleeping bags on the floor — “until the night a bug crawled across my face.”
She demanded a bed with a mattress and box springs.
Today, “I love everything about being a grandparent, and Rick does too, except the part about changing diapers,” she said.
Both of those themes harmonize with the campaign’s television advertising blitz, which includes one commercial in which Scott talks about his financially strained, working-class background and another in which he plays with his grandson, toddler Auguste Guimard.
When Scott was considering running for governor, his wife told the GOP women, “Believe me ladies, we had many conversations.
“I finally told him. ‘OK sweetie I’m behind you 100 percent ... but please don’t make me give any speeches.’”
“It’s a miracle I’m up here today,” she said.