Democrat Charlie Crist used the occasion of his only scheduled debate with Gov. Ron DeSantis Monday evening to pummel the Republican governor over his restrictions on abortion rights, for ignoring science when writing Covid and transgender policy, for sidestepping 82,000 Covid deaths in Florida, and for refusing to commit to serving a full second term.
DeSantis, looking alternatively ill at ease and pugnacious during the one-hour contest, fired back, accusing former U.S. Rep. Crist of being soft on crime and immigration enforcement. He insisted that his Covid policies preserved Florida’s economy, boosted parents’ rights, and touted school testing results, though the latest national data Monday showed 4th and 8th graders were unable to reach proficiency in math and reading.
Meanwhile, the audience gathered in Fort Pierce’s Sunrise Theatre proved as much a participant as either candidate, cheering their own team while jeering at the opposition. “Liar!” somebody yelled during DeSantis’ closing remarks.
Like a stern and somewhat angry dad — Crist is 66 and DeSantis is 44 — Crist scolded DeSantis over the truthfulness of the governor’s remarks several times, saying, “It’s not true and you know it.”
And at one point Crist questioned whether DeSantis had the temperament to lead. Crist was a former Republican governor, Attorney General and Education Commissioner before he became a Democrat.
But DeSantis said:
“When a once-in-a-century pandemic hit, I led based on facts, not based on fear. I lifted you up while some, like Charlie Crist, wanted to lock you down. I took a lot of flak in the process but, through it all, I was always more concerned about protecting your job than I was about saving my own.”
‘I want to be a uniter’
Crist summed up his argument against an incumbent he’d frequently accused of bullying during the debate.
“I want to be a uniter. I want to bring this state back together and not have a divider as a governor. I want women to have the right to choose and make their own decisions about your body, especially in cases of rape or incest,” Crist said.
The challenger pressed DeSantis several times about whether he would pledge to serve a four-year term if reelected — a dig at the governor’s clear presidential ambitions. Crist accused DeSantis of ignoring rising housing and insurance costs because he’s more interested in appealing to the national GOP base ahead of 2024.
“He won’t even tell you if he’ll serve four years if you reelect him. I mean, come on. You deserve better than that. Florida deserves better than that.”
Asked point blank by Crist whether he’d commit to a full term, DeSantis stared ahead, saying nothing for several moments. Finally, the moderator pointed out that the debate rules precluded the candidates questioning each other, but it was an awkward moment for the governor.
DeSantis did kinda sorta answer that question without making a firm pledge.
“I just want to make things very, very clear: The only worn-out old donkey I’m looking to put out to pasture is Charlie Crist.
Early voting begins
The debate, sponsored by WPEC in West Palm Beach and broadcast on CBS affiliates statewide, came as early voting began in some counties and two weeks and a day before voting concludes on Nov. 8.
Crist opened the evening as a clear underdog whom DeSantis has far outstripped in fundraising and polling. Between his campaign account and the Friends of Ron DeSantis committee, the governor’s sitting on more than $107 million in cash on hand. The Friends of Charlie Crist committee and Crist’s campaign account has a nearly $2.2 million in combined totals. All those figures were good as of the Oct. 14 financial disclosures.
The moderator called attention to the fan Crist aides had placed on the stage near his podium — a standard practice for Crist during public appearances.
Crist certainly came out hot during the debate, attacking DeSantis for the 15-week abortion ban he pushed through the Legislature this spring, for his airlift to Massachusetts of mostly Venezuelan asylum seekers, moving against gender-affirming care for kids, and restricting sports participation by trans girls and discussions of the country’s history of racial discrimination in the public schools.
“We ought to teach facts in our schools. We ought to teach the truth in our schools,” Crist said.
DeSantis hit back.
“When you oppose a parents’ rights in education bill which prevents 6-, 7-, 8-year-olds from having sexuality, gender ideology injected in their curriculum, you are the one that’s waging the culture war. I’m simply defending parents and students,” he said.
“It’s inappropriate to tell a 6-year-old that they were born in the wrong body; it’s inappropriate to tell an 8-year-old that they may have been born a girl but maybe they’re really a boy. That’s wrong. We need to do the basics. We need to teach them to read, write, add, and subtract,” he continued.
“You love dividing our state, whether it’s Blacks against whites, whether it’s straights against gays, whether it’s young versus old. You’re making it harder to vote in our state,” Crist said. “That’s anti-democracy.”
Crist returned again and again to abortion, accusing DeSantis of preferring to talk about critical race theory and transgender kids than explain whether he’ll ask the Legislature for further abortion restrictions.
“You’re taking away from all these other issues because you don’t want to talk about taking away a woman’s right to choose. And that’s on the ballot in this election,” Crist said.
Following the debate, the parties issued statements attempting to spin the outcome.
The Florida Democratic Party, for example, called DeSantis the “gun violence candidate.”
“Ron DeSantis claims he’s improved public safety, but he’s made Florida less safe by opposing gun safety laws. DeSantis declared that he would have vetoed the measures taken after the Parkland tragedy to keep children safe, stayed largely silent this summer after shootings in Uvalde, Texas, Buffalo, New York, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, and even vetoed money for a youth training complex after the Tampa Bay Rays simply tweeted against gun violence,” a written statement read.
“Worse yet, Ron DeSantis has promised that he would institute a dangerous “criminal carry” law, removing the need for any permit or training to carry hidden weapons — a policy opposed by law enforcement. DeSantis has also expressed animosity toward common sense background checks,” it continued.
Crist’s own campaign proclaimed: “GAME CHANGED: Crist Dominates Gubernatorial Election Debate.” (All caps in the original.)
Republican National Committee spokeswoman Julia Friedland countered: “From his uninspiring campaign built on lies to his disastrous debate performance tonight, Charlie Crist has made it clear that he doesn’t want people to vote for him. In fact, he said so himself.”
–Michael Moline, Florida Phoenix