Charlie Crist and Nikki Fried faced off Thursday in the first and likely only televised debate between two candidates asking Florida Democrats to choose them in the Aug. 23 primary as the party’s nominee to take on Gov. Ron DeSantis in November.
Crist, a congressman from St. Petersburg and a former Republican governor of Florida, has been consistently leading over Fried, the state’s elected agriculture commissioner, in most public polls of the race.
The pre-taped South Florida debate, aired by Telemundo 51 and NBC 6, was the only televised debate that Crist has agreed to — a point that Fried noted at the start of her opening statement.
The debate, which had few dramatic moments, took place as vote-by-mail ballots arrived at voters’ homes across the state.
Here are five highlights:
The Democratic primary isn’t getting any friendlier
The debate showed that Florida Democrats will have a hard time moving on from a primary that has turned more personal and divisive in the past few months.
Fried at one point compared Crist to conservative Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and Crist called her desperate. While criticizing DeSantis, Fried said, “Unfortunately, so many of these policy initiatives that (DeSantis) is fighting on today were Charlie’s when he was a Republican.”
At one point, Crist put Fried on the spot to answer if she was willing to endorse him if she lost the primary, saying he would do so if he lost. Fried dodged the question.
Instead, she said that though she and Crist may agree on some policies, voters need to pick the person that can beat DeSantis — and that the person who could do it was her.
“If we vote for Charlie, we’re going to see Ron DeSantis running for president because he’ll get another term,” she said.
Crist finally fires back at Fried
Crist has long been known in politics for his soft manner and nice-guy charm.
And for the majority of his more than yearlong campaign, Crist has looked the other way at Fried’s repeated attacks on his record and his character. He and his team have deflected questions and insisted the opponent they’re focused on is DeSantis.
But on Thursday, Crist fired back at Fried throughout the debate, saying her criticisms of him suggested “desperation” and criticizing her past donation to Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody.
On the question of abortion, Fried pounced on Crist. She criticized his prior record on abortion access and said when “women die here in the state of Florida” due to new restrictions that it would be on Crist.
Fried has constantly come after Crist for his record on abortion, and Crist has typically responded by affirming his support for abortion access over the years.
But on Thursday, he addressed Fried in the most direct way yet, saying she was “trying to muddy it up.”
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“And let’s understand what’s going on here,” he said. “You’re losing this campaign. It’s time for desperation. And now it’s on full display all over the state of Florida. And I’m sorry to see that.”
Ron DeSantis still the focus
Even as the candidates debated each other, DeSantis still hung over the crowd as the biggest name in the room: He was mentioned 36 times during the hourlong debate.
Both candidates painted him as being inflated with power and on the path toward the White House, and of supporting policies that have negatively impacted Florida’s LGBTQ population, Black Floridians, the business community and more.
And when asked by the debate moderator what the loss of each candidate could mean for the viability of the Democratic party, both dismissed it — saying challenging DeSantis was the most important thing.
Fried said her parents told her she had an obligation to “stand up against bullies,” which motivated her run against DeSantis.
“I had no choice but to stand up and to make sure that he was a one-term governor,” she said.
“It’s supposed to be public service, and you’re supposed to serve with a servant’s heart,” Crist said. “Ron DeSantis, make no mistake about it, is a politician who only cares about his own future.”
On questions about policy, both repeatedly brought things back to DeSantis — whether it was the state’s property insurance crisis, his fight with Disney, his promotion of congressional maps that eliminated a Black-majority North Florida district and more.
In their final remarks, though both candidates got a quick barb in at each other, they closed by looking toward not just August’s election, but November’s.
Candidates made similar promises and focused on personal differences
As Fried and Crist at times themselves acknowledged, they agreed on several points brought up over the course of the night.
Both pointed to housing and affordability as critical issues. They both agreed they would support a death sentence for the Parkland shooter, whose sentencing trial is underway. And they both agreed they are staunchly in favor of abortion rights.
Crist, who said he would work closely with the Biden administration if elected, highlighted his experience in the governor’s mansion as his biggest strength and greatest difference from his opponent.
“Being governor’s a big job,” he said. “And it takes people who are ready to make big decisions. I’ve done it. I’ll do it again.”
“We have to have a governor who will try to bring us together again instead of dividing Florida, like DeSantis has torn Florida apart. We need a governor who wants to care about the people of our state, not the people in Iowa or New Hampshire, who are going to be voting in 2024 for the Republican nominee for president.”
Fried argued that her biggest contrast to Crist was their stances on abortion, an attack she has echoed throughout her campaign.
When asked a question about abortion by the debate moderator, she said it was “the greatest difference between myself, Charlie and Ron.”
“I have been pro-choice my entire life,” Fried said. “I have made sure that I’ve stood on the side of women. Charlie cannot say the same thing.”
Mike Hernandez, a political analyst for Telemundo 51, told the Times/Herald that the debate featured few convincing shots from either candidate, which he said was not a point in favor of Fried.
“No knockout blows, which, if you’re Nikki Fried, you need to draw a bigger contrast,” Hernandez said.
No big blows
Thursday’s Democratic debate did not deliver any memorable zingers, and for the most part, candidates let each other speak uninterrupted. But things were clearly tense ahead of the taping earlier in the day.
As the candidates prepared to debate each other, Fried took to Twitter to complain that Crist was 30 minutes late to the Miramar studio (a claim that Crist’s campaign says is false). She added that “the delay was delayed because his fan was too loud. Can’t make it up.”
Crist’s personal fan has a long history of being the protagonist at debates during Crist’s three decades of political life, a fixture of his stage appearances and emblematic of his reported hate of sweating.
Another person in the studio during the taping confirmed to the Herald there were, in fact, some technical issues with Crist’s iconic fan interfering with the microphone.
Lest it be the most important takeaway from the debate, Crist’s campaign countered the logistics of fan placement only took a minute and a half, at most.