What does Gov. Rick Scott mean when he calls Sen. Bill Nelson "confused," as he did twice during Tuesday's U.S. Senate debate?
To Democrats, Scott's intentions are clear. The repeated references to Nelson's state of mind are a flagrant and unseemly attempt to draw attention to the age of a 76-year-old senator who has never been accused of poor mental fitness.
Scott's campaign said that's not the case at all.
"It's that he has become such a party-line liberal, and like most career politicians, he talks a lot but doesn't get anything done," the Republican's spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said.
Whether it is a dog whistle, or just a particularly cutting attack in a long line of brutish missives, Scott's campaign isn't backing away. Campaign manager Jackie Schutz Zeckman sent reporters a post-debate recap that asserted Nelson was "losing his mind" and "barely hanging on."
"A rambling, incoherent, confused, disjointed performance," Schutz Zeckman said in the statement. It was a startling conclusion to draw from the debate, a straightforward, if not mundane clash between two seasoned politicians who went to great pains to avoid missteps by saying little, if anything, new.
Nelson's campaign said Schutz Zeckman's remarks crossed a line. And on Wednesday, the left-aligned Alliance for Retired Americans called on Scott to "stop using ageist, inflammatory language to describe Senator Nelson immediately."
Nelson turned 76 on Sept. 29, and has often dismissed questions about his age with a challenge to a pushup contest. There are 11 senators older than Nelson in a chamber where the median age is 63 — or two years younger than Scott. If elected, Scott would be 66 at his swearing-in, 19 years older than Florida's other senator, Marco Rubio.
Republican strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich said it's obvious Scott's campaign sees Nelson's age as a vulnerability to exploit — part of a plan to paint Nelson as too old and having spent too long in office. Nelson was first elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1972.
Stipanovich is less sure how it will play out in a state where 1 in 5 residents are retirement age.
"Those are dog whistles. Who exactly they're designed to appeal to, since such a great percentage of the voters are Nelson's age, I don't know," Stipanovich said. "I don't know if that's a great strategy or not."
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