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Tea party-backed Scott claims Fla. governor win

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. --Tea party-backed Republican businessman Rick Scott, who ran as an outsider vowing to shake up the political establishment, claimed victory Wednesday as Florida's next governor after Democrat Alex Sink conceded an extremely tight race.

In a victory speech, Scott said he would focus on creating jobs, reducing the size of government and shaking up "politics as usual in Tallahassee," while also working to bridge the gap between his supporters and Sink's. But Scott also took a jab at politicians, experts and observers who said he would never win.

"There were plenty of pundits, politicians and insiders who said this victory was impossible," said Scott, flanked by his family and his running mate, Jennifer Carroll. "But the people of Florida knew exactly what they wanted. They sent a message loud and clear: they said, let's get to work."

With 99 percent of Tuesday's votes counted, Scott had 49 percent to Sink's 48 percent -- a lead of about 53,000 votes. Even though some counties were still counting ballots Wednesday, Sink said she didn't see a way to eke out a win.

"Over the course of the evening and into this morning, my team has analyzed the situation statewide and has concluded that, while this is one of the closest gubernatorial elections in history, there is no path to victory for us," she told reporters after telephoning Scott to congratulate him. "Therefore, Rick Scott will be the next governor of Florida."

Scott had predicted hours earlier that he would win. Even so, a number of counties were still counting ballots, including Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Hillsborough counties where Sink ran strongly.

Scott, a 57-year-old multimillionaire, unexpectedly jumped into the Republican primary race in April and proceeded to spend about $73 million of his own money beating Attorney General Bill McCollum for the GOP nomination.

Sink is the state's elected chief financial officer. She worked for 26 years in the banking business, eventually becoming one of the state's most prominent businesswomen.

"We fought very, very hard," Sink said. "We just fell a little bit short."

Sink said she planned to return to private life but added, "I will continue hold the politicians in Tallahassee accountable for results."

Scott, who will be sworn in Jan. 4, will replace Gov. Charlie Crist, who eschewed a second term to run for U.S. Senate as an independent. Crist lost that race Tuesday to Republican Marco Rubio, who also had tea party backing.

Scott's victory came despite relentless attacks from Sink over massive fraud at the hospital chain Scott founded, which led to his ouster and the company's payment of a record $1.7 billion fine. His supporters overlooked that history, accepting Scott's promise that he was guilty of no wrongdoing other than his failure to hire more auditors.

"He can make a change," said a jubilant Toney Sleiman, a 60-year-old real estate developer from Jacksonville who attended Scott's victory party wearing a black T-shirt declaring the Republican the state's new governor and the phrase "I Told You So!" plastered across it.

With an oratory of simple, unsoaring words -- his mantra was "Let's Get To Work" -- Scott repeatedly linked Sink to President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He branded her a "Tallahassee insider" even though she's in her first term of office, seeking to capitalize on frustration with incumbents, and promised to bring change to state government even as Republicans have controlled the governor's mansion for 12 years.

Scott jumped into the race in April, blanketing state airwaves in ads and beating the GOP establishment candidate McCollum in the primary. After winning the nomination, he quickly picked up the backing of state GOP leaders, many of whom had previously worked to defeat him.

To the very end, polls remained incredibly close and the race's conclusion impossible to predict. But Scott remained optimistic, repeatedly saying in recent days he was expecting to win big.

Scott was born in Bloomington, Ill., and raised in Kansas City, Mo., living for a time in public housing. He began his business career with a pair of doughnut shops and eventually started the Columbia health care company with his life savings of $125,000 and a billionaire's backing. Columbia began buying up hospitals, eventually absorbing HCA to become the world's biggest health care company.

Scott was ousted by Columbia/HCA's board in 1997, days after FBI agents served warrants to search company facilities in six states and federal officials warned executives could face criminal charges.

He insists he did nothing wrong, though says he takes responsibility for what happened under his watch. Scott left Columbia/HCA with a golden parachute valued at more than $300 million.

Scott has lived in an $11.5 million waterfront estate in Naples for just long enough to constitutionally qualify for the governor's office in Florida, the fourth-largest state in the country.

Sink, 62, is a former bank president who was elected Florida's CFO in 2006. She had the endorsement of the state's law enforcement unions and every daily newspaper and tried to convince voters that Scott is untrustworthy and unprepared to lead the state.

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Stacy reported from Tampa, Fla. 

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