TALLAHASSEE — Rick Scott and Charlie Crist are using a similar weapon in their battle for the Governor's Mansion: teachers.
Schoolteachers play a starring role in Scott's latest round of campaign television ads.
"Rick Scott has put a lot of money back into education," a teacher named Vicki says in one ad, standing before her whiteboard.
Crist also has enlisted educators in his gubernatorial bid. The Democratic front-runner recently hosted a roundtable discussion with educators, and asked one of them to deliver his qualifying documents to the elections department in Tallahassee. He has since met with teachers in Orlando and Miami.
While the tactics are similar, the strategies are different.
Crist has already snagged the endorsement of the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union. Now, he is hoping to get as many teachers and public-school supporters to the polls as possible. Their votes could make a difference in a close race.
Scott, the Republican incumbent, isn't relying on teacher votes but on parents with schoolchildren. Still, the early emphasis on education does not surprise some observers.
"It's smart politics," said Florida State University political science professor Carol Weissert. "He's certainly been trying to soften his image by campaigning with his wife and family, and (boost) his popularity among women."
Education isn't likely to get as much buzz as the economy in this year's gubernatorial race, but there is no doubt that the issue resonates with voters. A Quinnipiac poll released in January found that 9 percent of Florida voters consider education the most important issue in the upcoming election.
The same poll asked likely voters which candidate would do a better job handing public schools. Nearly half said Crist. Only 35 percent gave Scott the advantage.
Crist did not have the support of the statewide teachers union when he ran for governor as a Republican in 2006. But educators rallied to his side when he vetoed a controversial merit pay proposal in 2010.
Crist, who became a Democrat in 2012, has said he intends to make education the focus of his current campaign.
"What this campaign is going to be about, first and foremost, is making sure we have someone in the Governor's Mansion (who) understands how precious education is and how important it is to honor our teachers and not demoralize the heck out of them," he said last month.
Scott has struggled in winning over teachers. The first bill he signed into law: a performance pay plan similar to the one Crist vetoed in 2010.
During his first year in office, in the midst of a budget deficit, Scott slashed the statewide education budget by $1.3 billion — a move that drew the ire of teachers, school administrators and parent groups statewide.
Since then, Scott has been working to build his public education bonafides. He restored the education budget when the economy rebounded, and led the charge for teacher raises in 2013. He has also promoted the most recent education budget as the largest in state history — a claim Democrats dispute because the state spent more money per student in 2007-08, when Crist was governor.
The two campaigns have spent the past few weeks attacking each other's education records.
In one TV ad Scott's political committee, Let's Get to Work, slams Crist for laying off 3,000 teachers. PolitiFact Florida rated the ad Mostly False, noting it omitted key points and lacked evidence to support the actual number of layoffs.
The Crist team, meanwhile, has painted Scott as a governor who decimated public schools.
"He talks about jobs all the time," Crist told the teachers in Tallahassee. "But he won't lay the groundwork so people can get them."
Not true, says the Scott campaign. They point out that Crist made deep cuts to the education budget in the wake of the economic downturn.
"The unfortunate truth for (Crist) is that he left K-12 schools in a worse financial position than when he entered office, while Gov. Scott has provided record funding for schools and $480 million for teacher pay raises," campaign spokesman Greg Blair said.
Higher education also has become a flash point, with Scott blasting Crist for approving tuition hikes during his time in office.
In one ad, Scott's campaign claimed Crist "allowed college tuition to increase up to 15 percent every year." PolitiFact Florida rated the claim Mostly True, though it pointed out that Scott's campaign failed to mention that tuition rose 15 percent in one year of Scott's administration.
Crist, meanwhile, has hammered Scott for cutting back the state-funded merit scholarships known as Bright Futures.
PolitiFact Florida found that both Crist and Scott tightened Bright Futures eligibility requirements, which reduced the number of students who received money. Both Crist and Scott signed off on those changes.
Educators are paying attention to the back-and-forth.
Retired Miami-Dade teacher Evelyn Stahl said she plans to vote for Scott because he has supported high standards and accountability.
"Republicans in general believe in setting standards for educational achievement," she said. "Overall, Republicans have done more for education."
But Frank Roder, who heads the retired teachers' union in Pasco County, said Crist would be better for Florida's public schools.
"He listened to teachers," Roder said. "He's changed some of his positions, yes, but he's evolving."
Roder said he would be encouraging his fellow educators — both retired and working — to make their voices heard on Election Day.
"In a nonpresidential year, turnout is always low," he said. "Hopefully, we can get people to go out there and vote."
This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.