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Scott Won’t OK Jacksonville Debate Without Audience

The fate of the only scheduled statewide television debate between Bill McCollum and Rick Scott remained in doubt Wednesday, despite McCollum’s bowing to his rival’s demand that the contest be held in Jacksonville, not Orlando.

McCollum’s campaign wrote debate sponsor Leadership Florida saying the candidate was willing to take part in the Aug. 11 debate even if it was moved to WJXT-TV in Jacksonville from its originally planned location in the studios of WKMG-TV, Orlando.

“As the only debate that will air on commercial stations throughout Florida, we remain committed to participating in this important exchange of ideas on the future of the Sunshine State,” McCollum senior advisor Doyle Bartlett said in a letter Wednesday to Leadership Florida President Wendy Abberger.

The Scott campaign, however, has so far refused to sign-off on the change.

“We have not reached an agreement with Leadership Florida,” said Scott spokeswoman Jennifer Baker. “But we’re eager to begin our debate schedule next week.”

The first debate, scheduled to be taped Monday, will be aired Saturday on Univision stations in Orlando, Tampa and Miami. The second meeting, to take place Thursday, will be broadcast live from Tampa Fox affiliate WTVT and also will air in Orlando on a Fox affiliate.

Scott is leading McCollum in the Republican primary for governor, according to polls. But as a first-time candidate, Scott likely faces more risks in the debates than McCollum, who has been tarred by his rival in TV spots and campaign appearances as a “career politician.”

Baker, however, denied that Scott was ducking McCollum, pointing out the campaign originally sought four debates before the Aug. 24 primary. Scott earlier balked at the Orlando studio debate with the campaign saying he wanted a contest televised from North Florida with audience participation.

The Jacksonville TV studio proposal would be before a smaller crowd than the Orlando station could offer. But the debate would be in Scott’s favored North Florida, organizers said.

Dean Ridings, president and CEO of the Florida Press Association, which is jointly sponsoring the debate with Leadership Florida, said that some form of debate will be held whether Scott appears or not.

“We believe Floridians need to know more about both candidates,” Ridings said. “We are looking at options of presenting the views of the candidates somehow.”

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