In the weirdest start of a gubernatorial debate, Florida Gov. Rick Scott initially refused to take the stage Wednesday night because Democrat Charlie Crist insisted on using a fan to keep him cool.
The Republican governor finally emerged at least six minutes late as flummoxed moderators struggled on live TV to figure out what to do with a bemused Crist standing solo on stage at Broward College.
"Are we really going to debate about a fan? Or are we going to talk about education and the environment and the future of our state?" Crist asked. "I mean, really."
The sharp elbows started almost as soon as Scott walked out, looking rattled. Scott went on offense quickly, but some of his supporters privately fretted that the fan incident could be a defining and damaging moment for the incumbent in the final stretch of a close race.
Scott stayed on message: jobs.
"Charlie is the zero-wage governor: 832,000 people went from wages to zero wages when he was governor," Scott said.
Crist was having none of it.
"Rick, there you go again: trying to blame the global economic meltdown on me," Crist said. "You just can't trust Rick. It's sad. And it's unfortunate."
Scott shot back with a one-liner: "Charlie's campaign slogan should be 'Charlie Crist — powerless for the jobless.' What you just heard is he couldn't do anything."
Fangate will likely prove to be the most memorable moment of their first high-profile televised debate. But for the about 7 percent of voters who remain undecided there were plenty of clear issue differences to consider:
• Crist supports allowing same-sex marriage in Florida and said Florida's ban is discriminatory. Scott declined to say whether he considers it discriminatory but said he supports "traditional marriage."
• Crist wants the state to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid coverage to more than 800,000 Floridians. Scott does not.
• Crist supports increasing the minimum wage. Scott does not.
The hourlong debate sponsored by Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association was punctuated periodically with cheers and jeers from partisans in the audience.
It included a segment during which Florida journalists mentioned social media reactions and questions. Asked what was trending early into the debate, Naples Daily News executive editor Manny Garcia reported the obvious:
"Well, the fan."
It took less than 40 minutes before the Crist campaign fired off a fundraising email signed by campaign manager Omar Khan saying Scott embarrassed the state: "If you're as amazed as I am by what you just saw, chip in a few bucks right now to make sure this guy doesn't get to stay our governor."
The Scott campaign released its own statement: "Charlie Crist can bring his fan, microwave, and toaster to debates — none of that will cover up how sad his record as governor was compared to the success of Rick Scott. Crist should buy a fan for the 832,000 Floridians who lost their jobs while he was governor."
The candidates went into the debate amid a dead-heat race, with Crist and Scott each receiving 40 percent support from likely voters in a new Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9/UF Bob Graham Center poll. Libertarian Adrian Wyllie, who was excluded from Thursday's debate because of low poll numbers, drew 6 percent support.
The poll showed that voters don't really trust either candidate, with 32 percent saying Scott was honest and ethical, and 34 percent saying that of Crist. The survey results reflect the negative tenor of the campaign's $72 million in ads — $50 million from Scott and $22 million from Crist.
Viewers trying to sort through their assorted claims and charges Wednesday night over who did a worse job as governor likely saw little reason to improve their perceptions.
Rather than the standard "Are you better off than four years ago?" question, voters still on the fence might have more of gut check question: Do you expect to be better off four years from now with Rick Scott in charge or Charlie Crist?
Scott boasted about halting automatic tuition increases at Florida colleges and for spending record amounts on prekindergarten, K-12 and higher education. Scott repeatedly directed viewers to learn more by going to his website, factsforflorida.com.
Crist changed the subject and referenced Scott's former leadership of the troubled Columbia/HCA hospital chain.
"Rick talks about telling the truth," Crist said. "That's an interesting thing to assert from a guy who ran a company that had to pay the largest fine for fraud in the history of the United States of America."
Boos from Scott supporters filled the debate hall.
"The truth hurts sometimes," Crist said in response. "And Rick, this is also the fact: You pled the Fifth 75 times so you wouldn't have to answer questions."
On the environment, Scott played up his successful settling of litigation over the Everglades, saying Crist "sat on his hands" by contrast when he was governor from 2007 to 2011.
"He did nothing on the environment," Scott said.
Crist shot back with an anecdote about how Scott wouldn't talk to residents upset over pollution in the Treasure Coast.
"They were so upset," Crist said. "He wouldn't show up and talk to them or answer their questions. It's a pattern."
Floridians are casting absentee ballots — 535,000 as of Wednesday morning. Republicans, who excel at mail-in voting, lead Democrats in casting absentee ballots 48 percent to 35 percent. Early in-person voting, which Democrats dominate, begins Monday.
The number of voters who saw Wednesday's debate wasn't immediately clear, and the longterm effect of the bizarre fan incident isn't, either.
Still, CBS4 anchor and debate host Eliott Rodriguez wanted a little more information about what happened. In the closing minutes, Rodriguez sternly asked Crist why he insisted on bringing a fan on stage when he knew it would be a contentious issue.
"Why not?" Crist responded. "Is there anything wrong with being comfortable?"
The widely read Drudge Report quickly had a banner headline online: "DYSFUNCTIONAL FLORIDA TRIES DEBATE."
Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @adamsmithtimes.