TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott's sudden absence at the start of a statewide TV debate reshaped the governor's race Thursday as event sponsors accused Charlie Crist of breaking the rules and Scott's side fretted over whether he damaged his re-election prospects.
At the center of the storm was a $20 fan that viewers couldn't see, quietly whirring near Crist's feet as he stood alone on stage Wednesday night at Broward College in Davie.
Scott denied that he refused to go on, though viewers saw his empty lectern for about seven chaotic minutes. Crist's campaign and debate organizers gave contradictory accounts of what led to "Fangate," and pundits had another reason to make fun of Florida politics as the fan flap drowned out talk on jobs, education and health care.
"He was sweating and he needed a fan," Scott told CNN. "I'm surprised he didn't try to ask for dry ice."
Crist downplayed the incident at a rally in New Port Richey. He said it was "just not true" that he broke the rules and said of the effect on his campaign: "Well, it hasn't been a bad thing."
That's what worries many Republicans.
"It was a missed opportunity. It was very odd," said Fort Lauderdale lawyer Ed Pozzuoli, a Scott ally and former Broward County GOP chairman who echoed numerous Republicans. "Gov. Scott has a record that he needs to extol at every opportunity, and the only thing being discussed now is the fan."
Before the debate went live at 7 p.m. Wednesday, the chaos backstage was more intense than it appeared on TV.
As Scott waited in an RV parked outside, his advisers loudly protested the presence of Crist's portable fan, which he has used for years to appear cool under hot TV lights. Scott's advisers urged Wendy Walker of Leadership Florida and Dean Ridings of the Florida Press Association to end the debate before it started. But the host station, Miami's WFOR, refused to pull the plug.
Scott debate adviser Brett O'Donnell found WFOR news director Liz Roldan and started yelling about the fan. Dan Gelber, Crist's debate point man, insisted the fan would stay.
Roldan, who declined to comment for this story, stood firm.
"We're producing the debate," she said. "We go live at 7."
The debate began with no candidates and "an extremely peculiar situation," moderator Eliott Rodriguez of WFOR said.
Less than a minute later, Crist rushed on stage. But Scott didn't show until 7:07. He told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Thursday that he was told not to go on stage by "organizers."
Rather than staging a brief boycott, Pozzuoli said, Scott should have used humor to defuse the controversy. "He would have gotten a lot more mileage out of it," he said.
Instead, the flap became a social media punch line and the talk of morning cable TV shows. MSNBC's Morning Joe showed the video, and an incredulous Mike Barnicle asked: "What's wrong with these people? The governor of Florida demanding no fan?"
The debate sponsors, Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association, released a statement Thursday saying that Crist's insistence on a fan was a violation of debate rules.
The two groups said they sent letters dated Oct. 6 to both candidates specifying that they "may not bring electronic devices (including fans), visual aids or notes."
An earlier version of the letter sent to candidates on July 22 banned electronic devices but did not specifically ban fans.
"Fans can create a problem on stage," Ridings said. "There can be a hum."
Ridings said the fan ban was added by his group and Leadership Florida. Asked if Scott's campaign also requested it, he said he didn't know.
Scott's campaign returned its letter of agreement Oct. 9, but Crist's campaign waited until Monday, two days before the debate. It included a handwritten notation by Gelber: "With understanding that the debate hosts will address any temperature issues with a fan if necessary."
Ridings received Gelber's paperwork at 6:44 p.m. Monday, a hectic time when debate organizers were distracted by another crisis: a lawsuit by Libertarian Party candidate Adrian Wyllie demanding that he be allowed to participate.
"All of us were extremely focused on the Wyllie lawsuit," Ridings said. "Frankly, calling our legal team to discuss a fan issue at that point seemed pretty trivial, from my perspective."
Leadership Florida's Walker said the Scott campaign did not see Gelber's version of the agreement before the debate.
But on a Tuesday walk-through at the auditorium, Gelber and Scott's advisers saw an extension cord from a wall to Crist's lectern held down by duct tape. No follow-up talks took place to clarify when a fan could be used or who would approve it, meaning that organizers and Crist's campaign had different understandings of the ground rules.
Walker said that during the Scott campaign's walk-through, O'Donnell asked about the fan.
"He just said, 'We are still good on the fan?' and I said there will be no fan," Walker said.
Gelber insisted Thursday that Ridings acknowledged the hall's air conditioning system was fickle. Ridings told Gelber that "if he (Crist) was uncomfortable, there would be a fan for him," Gelber said.
Ridings confirmed that he told Gelber that organizers wanted candidates to feel comfortable. When the newly renovated Bailey Hall was set at a cool 66 degrees, Ridings reminded Crist's campaign that no fans were allowed.
"Between 6 and 6:20 p.m." (Wednesday), the sponsors' statement said, "someone from the Crist campaign placed a fan under Charlie Crist's podium and they were again told that no fans would be permitted. Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association did not anticipate or plan for the possibility that a candidate would not honor the debate rules. In retrospect, the debate partners should have been better prepared."
Minutes before the debate went live, O'Donnell was visibly upset. He approached the debate moderators holding a copy of the rules and was overheard saying: "The rules say no fans. Are you going to abide by the rules?"
Rodriguez and the rest of the panel were blindsided by the demand. They were discussing questions, not debate stagecraft.
"We were totally caught by surprise," Rodriguez said. "Our producer relayed the unfortunate message to me in my ear that Gov. Scott would not come out on stage two minutes before airtime."
The New York Times called it "the great fan debate," and Politico said a "Nasty Scott-Crist 'fan' debate deepens feud." Sunshine State News, a reliably pro-Scott news outlet, called Scott's action a "senseless meltdown."
Scott and Crist will meet for their third and final debate at 7 p.m. Tuesday at WJXT in Jacksonville, moderated by CNN's Jake Tapper and shown to a nationwide cable audience.
Crist's campaign said he'll bring his fan. CNN said its rules prohibit it.
Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and C.T. Bowen contributed to this report.