Behind the scenes at debate, Rick Scott’s senior advisers — Melissa Sellers, Brett O’Donnell — failed him

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Like a safety investigator sifting through the rubble of catastrophic train derailment, it’s time to assign blame by dissecting Gov. Scott’s failure on the issue of Crist’s podium fan.

First, let’s agree on the specific failures: Scott looked petty and perhaps even desperate. Crist got to stand next to an empty podium for seven minutes while the bemused debate hosts chuckled as they explained Scott’s refusal to walk on stage. And regardless of how well Scott might have done during the debate, he virtually guaranteed that Florida’s media would ignore his performance and talk about the bizarre decision not to come out and debate.

Whether it was Scott or his campaign staff that noticed the fan and insisted on making it an issue, ultimately, it’s the campaign team’s responsibility to keep the candidate focused and prevent an unforced error.

So who was running the show behind the scenes tonight?

Sellers is the governor’s campaign manager. Brett O’Donnell, a Washington D.C. consultant and former adviser to Michelle Bachman, was brought in by the Scott campaign to run debate prep. More than anyone else, including Scott himself, these two individuals were responsible for making sure a catastrophic screw-up like this didn’t happen. Even if Crist’s fan was a violation of debate rules, Sellers and O’Donnell should have kept Scott out of the line of fire and quietly raised the issue with debate organizers to let them make a ruling. Under no circumstances should the candidate be allowed to wade into the middle of such a petty issue.

To underscore this point, during the 2010 campaign, Scott’s team noted a potential rule violation minutes before a debate against Alex Sink. And no, we’re not talking about the fateful Blackberry cheating scandal during the final debate on CNN, though that may have been what Scott’s team foolishly tried to replicate tonight.

No, this issue occurred during the first Univision debate. Sink’s team placed a 4-inch riser behind her podium so she would appear taller. Scott’s advisers believed the riser violated debate rules, but if they mentioned the issue to Scott at all, he still came out on stage at the appointed time. What we know for certain, however, is that Scott’s team pointed the riser out to reporters, then posted photos of the riser on Twitter, saying “Sink needs help standing up to Rick Scott,” and calling the riser “Sink’s debate stimulus.” What the campaign team didn’t do was allow Sink to own the stage for nearly seven minutes while the candidate himself complained that Sink wasn’t really as tall as she looked.

Scott’s campaign staff failed badly tonight. This isn’t even a question. But how is Scott to blame for the disaster? The answer is straightforward. Just as Scott likes to say he takes responsibility for the fraud that occurred on his watch at Columbia/HCA, he also must take responsibility for the disastrous decisions of the people that he has chosen to advise him and execute his re-election campaign. Did he tolerate this kind of failure at Columbia/HCA? I doubt it.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.