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Unity on the menu at Florida GOP dinner

From Peter Hamby, CNN Political Producer
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rick Scott seeks unity in governor's race
  • Florida Republicans are meeting at Disney
  • Democrat Alex Sink criticizes Scott's business record

Lake Buena Vista, Florida (CNN) -- There was supposed to be a $50 million elephant in the room when Rick Scott addressed an audience of Florida Republican elites on Friday as the party's gubernatorial nominee.

That's the amount Scott, formerly the CEO of the country's largest private health-care chain, shelled out during his four-month primary battle against Bill McCollum.

The race quickly spiraled into negativity as both candidates traded charges, mostly via the state's expensive television air waves, about each other's character. McCollum, still stinging, has not yet endorsed Scott.

But at the Florida GOP's quarterly meeting, held at a pair of Disney World hotels on Friday and Saturday, there was little outward resentment toward Scott, a first-time candidate who never toiled in the party trenches like McCollum and his party allies.

"There's incredible enthusiasm with all our candidates," asserted Republican Party of Florida chairman John Thrasher, who feuded publicly with Scott during the primary over a television ad criticizing the state party. "Rick Scott and I have a great relationship."

Eager not to squander the chance to return a conservative to the governor's mansion in the wake of Gov. Charlie Crist's turn away from the GOP, party members made nice ahead of Scott's speech to the party's annual Victory Dinner on Friday, his first high-profile appearance before the state's Republican establishment.

"We're all big boys, and once the intramural match is over we all leave the field and get ready to face off against the other team," said Republican strategist Rick Wilson, who advised McCollum. "We played hard, but the reality is that Alex Sink would be a disaster for the RPOF, vastly larger than any hard feelings."

One of the party's first tasks at hand Friday was to offer a resolution that affirmed the party's support for Scott as the GOP nominee. It passed by unanimous voice vote.

That was followed by promises to back Scott from two of McCollum's top allies in the state legislature -- incoming Senate president Mike Haridopolos and incoming House speaker Dean Cannon.

With Scott in the governor's mansion, Cannon told party members, Republicans would offer an "aggressive conservative agenda" to combat the "tide of economic socialism" emerging from Democratic leaders in Washington.

That anti-Washington message was the one Scott delivered as he addressed the dinner and attempted to link his Democratic opponent, Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer, to President Barack Obama.

"Make no mistake about it, Alex Sink is an Obama liberal, and now she's trying to hide it from the voters of Florida," said Scott, who drew several standing ovations but also stumbled over his prepared remarks on a handful of occasions.

Scott's big debut, though, was overshadowed by a rousing and emotional address by Senate candidate Marco Rubio, a conservative darling who was making his first public appearance since the death of his father the previous week. Rubio choked up in the course of his remarks when discussing his family.

Rubio often refrains from taking unprompted potshots at his two opponents in the Senate race, but he could not resist throwing an elbow at Crist in front of the partisan crowd.

"This is not just a race between a Republican, a Democrat and an opportunist," Rubio said, grinning. "This election is a referendum on our identity."

The Victory Dinner was headlined by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association and a potential 2012 presidential candidate.

Barbour stressed the need for party unity in a year when Democrats around the country are fighting for their political lives.

"When you have a tough primary, people get their feelings hurt, people get perturbed about this that or the other, and sometimes it takes a little time," he said. "But the fact of the matter is we have to come back together. We have to come back together because we are all on the same team for a reason. We are united by great ideas."

Sink's campaign responded to the evening of attacks by pointing to Scott's "shady business record" at the helm of Columbia/HCA, which paid a $1.7 billion penalty for Medicare fraud, the largest in the country's history.

"Alex Sink knows this election isn't about nationalized attacks, it's about who can attack the challenges facing Florida and create jobs here in our state," Sink spokeswoman Kyra Jennings said in an e-mail to CNN. "Alex brings her decades as a respected Florida business leader to the governor's office and has a real plan to grow our economy, improve our schools and support our small businesses."