* Gaffe by millionaire candidates in recession-hit state
* Minimum wage query came in nationally televised debate
* Race too close to call amid flood of bruising attack ads
By Tom Brown
MIAMI, Oct 26 (Reuters) - In recession-hit Florida, where economic gloom and high unemployment have been central to the Nov. 2 election campaign, the two candidates for governor have been given low marks for not being able to specify the state’s minimum wage.
Their ignorance of the exact figure, in a state saddled with the fourth highest jobless rate in the nation, came to light on Monday night during a nationally televised debate between Republican Rick Scott and Democrat Alex Sink.
In the final minutes of the debate, in which the candidates traded some of the sharpest barbs of a campaign that has flooded Florida’s airwaves with attack ads, Scott was asked to state the minimum wage in Florida.
The wealthy conservative, who has poured an estimated $60 million of his own money into the campaign, said the rate was $7.55 per hour.
Asked by a moderator if $7.55 was correct, Sink nodded and answered “yes.”
Florida’s minimum wage is actually $7.25 an hour, in line with the federal minimum wage which last increased in July 2009 when it rose from $6.55 per hour.
“It’s very embarrassing. That’s going to be headlines all over the state, it’s going to be all over talk radio and television,” University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus told local television, noting both candidates were millionaires.
Neither Scott nor Sink appeared to deliver any knockout punches during the debate and polls have made the contest in Florida, an influential swing state, too close to call.
But both candidates have said repeatedly that jobs in Florida, where unemployment has soared to its highest rate ever and topped 12 percent this year, were key to solving pivotal issues including the mortgage foreclosure crisis clouding the future of the Sunshine State.
Like other Republicans, Scott has sought to make the vote a referendum on what he has branded the failed economic policies of President Barack Obama.
Sink, meanwhile, has tried to cast the spotlight on Scott’s leadership of Columbia/HCA, a hospital chain that paid $1.7 billion in fines to settle the largest Medicare fraud case in U.S. history in the late 1990s.
Medicare is the federal health insurance program for the elderly and disabled.
Scott, 57, was never charged in the case and contends he did not know about the fraud during his stewardship of Columbia/HCA as chief executive. He resigned in 1997. (Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Jerry Norton)