JACKSONVILLE — In a fast-paced final debate Tuesday, Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democrat Charlie Crist displayed their mutual contempt to a national TV audience in the home stretch of the costliest and meanest campaign in the country.
For a live hour on CNN and TV stations across Florida, Scott and Crist disagreed, distorted each other's record and exchanged insults. In a neck-and-neck race, both men are fiercely trying to gain any tactical advantage with voters — only a small percentage of whom remain undecided.
Under sharp questioning by CNN's Jake Tapper -— from the studios of WJXT in Jacksonville with no fan for Crist — the candidates disagreed on issue after issue, especially the condition of Florida's economy, the very foundation of Scott's case for a second term.
Scott said Florida is "on a roll," but Crist said millions are forced to work two or three jobs to survive and that Scott wouldn't know that because of his "personal jet" and "oceanfront mansion."
"You're out of touch," Crist told Scott. "They're hurting and they need somebody who's on their side."
Scott stood firm, saying the state has added 651,000 new private-sector jobs after the state sank into economic misery when Crist was governor.
"You almost bankrupted the state," Scott told Crist, adding, "You're the last person who ought to be talking about jobs."
Mocking Crist's 2007 promise as governor to make property taxes drop "like a rock," Scott said: "The only thing that dropped like a rock was home prices."
The candidates dismissively called each other "Rick" and "Charlie" as a split-screen image showed them sneering in disgust at each others' answers.
Crist said Scott's personal wealth means he can't relate to everyday people. Scott called Crist a "mudslinger and a divider" who grew up rich and couldn't relate to the struggles of poor people.
Crist shot back, saying, "You don't know me and you can't tell my story." He said that even if Scott grew up poor, the multimillionaire's policies show he doesn't care enough about the middle class.
Both men manipulated the facts.
Scott repeated a claim that utility rates rose under Crist, a statement ruled False by PolitiFact Florida, and Crist recycled his half truth that Scott signed a law that prevented insurance regulation, implying it applied to property insurance when it related only to health insurance.
The debate began agreeably as both candidates gave similar answers to the need for a strong national response to the Ebola crisis.
Crist was put on the defensive almost immediately when a woman voter on Facebook called him expedient and asked why he could be trusted, but he quickly tried to turn the question to his advantage.
"I'm somebody that you can trust. I am who I've always been," Crist said, citing his support for abortion rights and a higher minimum wage.
Scott insisted that Crist has taken positions for political expediency and asked: "What is he saying this year that he actually believes?"
Scott restated his opposition to a higher minimum wage, saying it would cost 500,000 jobs, but when asked how much it should be, he said: "How would I know? I mean the private sector decides wages."
When Scott said he "took responsibility" for the record $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud at the Columbia/HCA hospital chain he ran, Tapper asked what he was taking responsibility for — and Scott recycled an answer that he acknowledged was four years old.
"I could have hired more auditors," Scott said. "That's what I said in 2010, and I wish I had done it."
Tapper pressed Scott to explain why he failed to disclose all of his assets as required by the state Constitution.
"I disclosed everything in the blind trust when I did my filing and also filed my tax returns, mine and my wife's,'' Scott said.
A Times/Herald investigation found that Scott may only be disclosing those assets held in his newly formed personal blind trust, not the assets held in his families' trust, raising questions about the completeness of his reports.
The best exchange of the night came when Tapper asked Scott to respond to Crist's claim that he doesn't take the death penalty seriously.
Scott called it a "solemn duty." Crist brought up Scott's decision to grant Attorney General Pam Bondi's request to postpone an execution because it conflicted with a campaign fundraiser.
"She asked me to delay it because it didn't work on the dates that she thought,'' he said. "She apologized."
By sidestepping so many questions, Scott played into Crist's narrative: "He doesn't answer questions."
The subject of restoring civil rights to ex-felons — a key element of Crist's appeal to black voters — produced the angriest crossfire.
Crist defended his support for streamlining the restoration of civil rights for nonviolent felons, which Scott abolished in favor of a minimum five-year delay.
"I brought restoration of rights back for nonviolent felons so they could have a chance to get a job," Crist said. "Sadly, under Rick Scott, it's gone."
In reply, Scott said that under Crist's policy, "You have intentional permanent disfigurement of a child, you walk out the door and you get to vote."
"You're lying again," Crist said.
On Cuba, Crist said he would support ending the Cuban embargo if elected but wouldn't meet with Fidel Castro's brother, Raul. Scott supports the embargo and said of the Castro brothers: "They're terrorists."
Scott sidestepped some pointed questions, such as when Tapper asked if black men get a fair shot in the justice system. Scott didn't answer.
When Scott was asked if he agrees with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio that illegal immigrants deserve a pathway to citizenship, Scott again didn't answer and said he supports securing the borders.
And when asked why he's reluctant to say that humans contribute to climate change, Scott changed the subject and said: "I'm into solutions."
The hour closed with Tapper asking both candidates to identify a "do-over"— something they would do differently.
Scott said he wished he had more time, and Crist asked for four more years as governor.
Crist will hold rallies with students and seniors and visit a barber shop in Jacksonville today, while Scott will start an early voting bus tour in South Florida and campaign in Miami with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.