After months of limiting his contact with Florida voters and reporters, Republican gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis this week turned into a ubiquitous and pugnacious presence on the campaign trail.
He also jumped head-long into the realm of the absurd with some of his attacks on Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum.
Desantis suggested Saturday in Central Florida that a Gov. Gillum would usher in a state income tax and be soft on child molesters.
"If you look at all the things he's promised, all the spending, there's no way, given that we have a balanced budget amendment, that he'd be able to do that without doing a state income tax," the former northeast Florida congressman told Republican activists in Seminole County near Orlando. "That would have to happen. And all of a sudden you forfeit Florida's character as a low tax state, which I think has been integral to our success."
Tallahassee Mayor Gillum does call for raising Florida's corporate tax rate two percentage points to 7.5 percent to boost education funding, including raising minimum teacher salaries to $50,000 per year. He has said nothing about a state income tax, which would be virtually impossible to enact even if he wanted to.
Changing the ban on state income tax that has been embedded in the Florida Constitution for nearly a century would require support from at least 60 percent of voters. Putting it on the ballot for voters to consider would require signatures from nearly 800,000 voters or support from three-fifths of both legislative chambers.
"There is a slightly less than zero percent chance of it happening," said Darryl Paulson, emeritus professor of government at University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
DeSantis, 39, based his child molester warning on Gillum having criticized President Donald Trump's hard-line immigration policies.
Gillum has called for abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and replacing it with a more "compassionate" agency no longer separating children from asylum-seeking parents or aggressively deporting undocumented residents who have not been accused of other crimes. He also criticized Trump's attacks on so-called "sanctuary cities" that fail to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
DeSantis said that if Gillum refused to work with immigration authorities — something the mayor never said — a convicted child molester could be released onto Florida's streets after completing his sentence rather than being sent back to his home country.
"If somebody has no right to be here and they do that and harm our community, why in the world would you want to put them back on the streets so that our children are at risk again? It is reckless. It is irresponsible, and it is dead wrong," DeSantis declared to applauding supporters at a local GOP office. "We're not going to let those types of policies carry the day here in Florida."
Asked later about those unsubstantiated claims, DeSantis said he was comfortable with them, given Gillum's expensive agenda and public comments about Trump's immigration policies.
"It's almost like saying, 'I can't persuade voters on the real issues so I'm going to raise fear and doubt.' That worked pretty well for a guy named Trump, and DeSantis is taking part of Trump's playbook," said Paulson, a Republican who recently registered as an independent out of disillusionment with the GOP under Trump.
Gillum is a leader in the county with the state's highest crime rate, making him vulnerable to attacks on his public safety record. In making preposterous, hypothetical allegations about Gillum freeing child molesters, DeSantis made it easier for Gillum to push back.
"It's disgusting that Ron DeSantis would so blatantly lie about the Mayor's record," said Geoff Burgan, communication director for the Gillum campaign. "Mayor Gillum's repeatedly talked about the importance of keeping people safe from sex trafficking, while at the same time getting rid of the immoral immigration policies of Donald Trump, which Ron DeSantis wholeheartedly supports. As Governor, Mayor Gillum will work to ensure the perpetrators of heinous crimes are punished to the full extent of the law, and under his leadership, Tallahassee's crime rate is at a five-year low and violent crime down 24 percent."
From the DeSantis campaign: "Andrew Gillum wants to abolish ICE, the agency tasked with deporting violent criminals and sexual offenders from our communities, which would make every community in Florida less safe. Of course, this isn't surprising since Tallahassee has consistently been one of the most dangerous cities in Florida under his watch."
For much the primary season, DeSantis largely campaigned on Fox News rather than engaging with voters and reporters in Florida. In the last week, however, DeSantis held at least 10 public campaign events across Florida, while Gillum held none. The Democrat attended a city commission meeting and raised money out of state.
"Jeanette and I have been all over the place," he said Saturday, referring to his running mate, state Rep. Jeanette Nunez. "My opponent, he's like missing in action. Nobody's seen him because he's got all these problems and he knows it's going to be tough to answer the questions."