For one hour Monday night, Democrat Charlie Crist was on equal footing with Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Literally — the two stood side by side on a stage in Fort Pierce for the first and only scheduled debate in the Florida governor’s race.
Enormously out-funded and behind in the polls, Crist, a former U.S. representative, needed a game-changing debate performance. It’s unclear if he got one, as the two spent the hour sparring over everything from inflation to the pandemic to immigration.
It was a rare moment of the two candidates — one a longtime player in Florida politics and the other a rising national Republican figure — engaging each other directly about their visions for Florida.
While Crist has branded himself, in many ways, as the anti-DeSantis candidate, the incumbent governor has spent more time decrying the policies of national Democrats like President Joe Biden. DeSantis hardly mentions Crist in his stump speeches.
Both on the campaign trail and during the debate, Crist has centered his campaign on abortion and affordability — two areas where he says the governor has failed Floridians while dividing the state over social issues. DeSantis, meanwhile, has drawn parallels between Crist and the policies of Biden — who DeSantis says caused the country’s historic inflation rates and supported lockdown policies during the pandemic. On Monday night, the governor repeatedly referenced “Biden-Crist” policies.
Here are four takeaways from the debate:
DeSantis hesitates after being asked if he’s running for president in 2024
During a back-and-forth on inflation, Crist pointedly asked DeSantis if he would leave halfway through his second term to run for president.
“You talk about Joe Biden a lot — I understand you think you’re going to be running against him, I can see how you might get confused. But you’re running for governor,” Crist said. “Why don’t you look in the eyes of the people of the state of Florida and say to them if you’re reelected, you will serve a full four-year term as governor, yes or no?”
DeSantis was silent for about 10 seconds as he looked into the camera in the split-screen, as Crist asked the same question again. DeSantis eventually asked the moderator: “Is it my time?” before responding.
“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,” the governor said after glancing quickly at his notes.
Later in the debate during an answer on immigration, Crist again asked DeSantis a similar question. DeSantis stuck to the topic at hand, before accusing Crist of being frequently absent in Congress.
Moderator Liz Quirantes then added that both campaigns had previously agreed the two men would not ask each other questions directly.
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Crist discussed abortion constantly, but failed to pin DeSantis down
In the first question of the debate, Crist was asked about the economy. He began his answer talking about abortion.
That set the tone for the debate in some ways. Crist talked about abortion during a segment about teacher pay. He discussed the right to choose during a back-and-forth about gender-affirming care for transgender kids. He mentioned it during his closing statement.
Democrats believe it’s an issue Crist will need to emphasize in order to win over suburban women, a key part of a potential Crist victory coalition. And supporters of abortion rights say they fear a second DeSantis term, given his record of passing abortion restrictions. Earlier this year, DeSantis signed a bill banning most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
At one point during the debate, Quirantes tried to pin down the candidates on the issue, asking at how many weeks of pregnancy abortion should be allowed.
Neither Crist nor DeSantis directly answered.
“I just think we’re better when everybody counts,” DeSantis said, noting he is “proud” of the 15-week ban. He also criticized Crist for his changing stance on the issue through the years.
“I want to make sure we keep a woman’s right to choose available to the women of the state of Florida,” said Crist. “And I want to make sure that we don’t have a governor in the future who wouldn’t even allow exceptions for rape or incest.”
Crist blamed DeSantis for the coronavirus shutdown
In a surprising early moment, Crist turned one of DeSantis’ signature talking points around on the governor.
“You’re the one who’s the shutdown guy,” Crist said, noting that DeSantis ordered schools and businesses closed in the early days of the pandemic. “You don’t just shut down at the outset, and then when it’s politically convenient for you, you want to open back up to score political points.”
Although DeSantis did issue a series of executive orders closing businesses and schools in the spring of 2020, the talking point was more than a little bit of revisionist history from Crist. DeSantis was hardly unique in his actions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. At the urging of public health officials, governments all over the world urged school, gym and restaurant closures, among others, around that time.
And far from being their champion, DeSantis was harshly criticized by many public health experts for allowing businesses and schools to reopen in person in the fall of 2020. Many also criticized DeSantis for subsequent moves to restrict the ability of local governments to enact mask and vaccine mandates.
In response to Crist’s criticism, DeSantis argued it was Crist who was pushing for business restrictions past the spring and summer of 2020, including in a letter DeSantis said the then-U.S. representative sent to him in July.
“We did it right in Florida,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis and Crist agreed on at least one thing
The two candidates went back and forth all night from opposing sides of most every issue: immigration, education, abortion, DeSantis’ governing style and more.
But toward the end of the contest, Crist and DeSantis agreed that the shooter who murdered 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 should have gotten the death penalty.
“You need to carry out the law,” Crist said. “You have to do what’s right, and it’s a tough thing sometimes.”
“I think he deserved the ultimate punishment,” DeSantis said. “There’s no other punishment that meets the gravity of that crime.”
Then the governor went a step further, announcing he would ask the Legislature to change the law to allow nonunanimous death penalty recommendations from a jury. The jury in the case of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooter did not vote unanimously to sentence him to death, so the shooter’s life was spared.
The “Kumbaya” moment didn’t last long. DeSantis took some time out of his answer on the shooter to remind voters that he suspended former Broward Sheriff Scott Israel for his department’s response to the shooting. In response, Crist bashed the governor for a different controversial suspension — Hillsborough prosecutor Andrew Warren.
“Governor, I know you went to Harvard Law School, but you need to study the Constitution again when you start removing people from public office,” Crist said. “That’s the job of the people.”
“I acted appropriately, and I would do it again,” DeSantis retorted.
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