FORT PIERCE, Fla. — Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis faced off Monday against his Democratic challenger U.S. Representative Charlie Crist in the first and only debate in this year's gubernatorial election, in which the two traded barbs over partisan social issues that have become a hallmark of races across the country.
The hour-long debate, held inside the Sunrise Theater in downtown Fort Pierce, touched on the economy, hurricane recovery and affordable housing.
But some of the most contentious moments came when the moderator, WPEC anchor Liz Quirantes, asked about abortion, education issues and rumors DeSantis may run for president in 2024.
“I want to make sure we don’t have a governor in the future who wouldn’t let abortions happen in the case of rape and incest,” Crist said. “That’s callous, it’s barbaric and it’s wrong.”
There is no evidence that Crist has supported abortion up until birth and the Democrat accused DeSantis of lying, a common charge made throughout the debate.
Education has been a major issue in the state this year, especially recent state laws prohibiting discussions of sexual orientation, gender and race in schools. When the moderator asked DeSantis about his ban on teaching critical race theory, he doubled down.
“It’s not good to scapegoat students based on skin color,” DeSantis said. “I’m proud of our history. I don’t want people to hate our country.”
Crist decried DeSantis’ efforts at stoking the culture wars.
“We need to not make political warzones out of our schools,” Crist said. “Our schools are doing a decent job and they are not teaching hate.”
DeSantis repeatedly brought up “Biden’s and Crist’s policies” during questions about the state’s high inflation and cost of living.
“Charlie has voted with Joe Biden a hundred percent of the time,” the governor said.
“You mention Biden a lot,” Crist shot back. “Because you think you are going to run against him in 2024.”
Then, the congressman turned to DeSantis and asked him directly, “Will you serve a full four-year term? Yes or no?”
DeSantis paused several seconds before the moderator mentioned candidates cannot ask each other questions, then replied: “The only old worn donkey I’m going to put to pasture is old Charlie Crist.”
Crist put DeSantis on the defensive most of the night, criticizing the governor’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent hurricane.
“Whether it is Covid or the hurricane, Ron ignored science,” Crist said, blaming the governor for not evacuating residents sooner before Hurricane Ian slammed into the state last month.
But the candidates did agree on the last question posed by the moderator: Should the jury in the Parkland school shooter case have recommended the death penalty?
“I’ve signed death warrants,” said Crist, who, as a then-Republican, served as the state's governor from 2007–2011. “It’s not a fun thing. But we must enforce law.”
DeSantis said the shooter deserved the "ultimate punishment."
The debate, postponed two weeks due to the hurricane, comes as DeSantis enjoys a wide lead in polls.
A statewide poll from Florida Atlantic University released on Friday shows DeSantis leading Crist 51% to 40% among the registered voters surveyed.
In a Telemundo/LX News poll released Monday, DeSantis also led 51% to 44% among Hispanic voters, a crucial voting bloc in the state.
The Crist campaign hopes this debate turns those numbers around, though early voting has already begun in most of the state.
Crist defeated his primary opponent, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, in August, campaigning as the Democrats’ best choice against the popular Republican governor. Fried later backed her former rival.
A Democrat has not held the governor’s office since Governor Buddy MacKay who served for less than month after the death of Governor Lawton Chiles in 1998.
DeSantis did not have a primary opponent and largely avoided any talk about his campaign until July, all while amassing a massive war campaign war chest of more than $223 million from his own campaign contributions and a PAC that has fundraised since 2019.
Campaign contributions for Crist are a humbler $58.6 million.
In the hours before the debate, several DeSantis supporters gathered in front of the Sunrise Theater, blaring country music and waving flags and campaign signs.
“He kept the state open during the pandemic,” said Shawn Jordan, 47, of nearby Indian River County. “And he didn’t put out any vaccine mandates.”
He stood next to his father, Bubba Jordan, a 76-year-old veteran and retired police officer.
“He follows the Constitution,” he said. “If you follow the Constitution, support the Second Amendment, I support you.”
The governor’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic was also one of the reasons Kitty Dipanfilo of Vero Beach plans to vote for DeSantis.
“We remained open during the pandemic,” she said. “So many Democratic states didn’t and closed everything down.”
States like New Jersey, she said, where her sister lives.
“She would call and I would say, ‘I’m out at dinner,’” she continued. “She said, ‘So you’re sitting down and eating?’”
Dipanfilo said she hopes DeSantis stays on for the full term as governor.
“I want him to stay here in Florida, but he may go higher,” she said.
An hour before the debate began, several dozen Crist supporters in pink t-shirts marched down the street toward the theater, shouting, “My body, my choice!”
The DeSantis group shouted back: “Ronny! Ronny! Ronny!”
Before long, DeSantis and Crist partisans stood on opposite sides of the street, attempting to yell over each other, shaking their signs, drowning each other out with dueling megaphones and sound systems — a scene embodying of the country’s political divisions.
Florida will hold its election Nov. 8.
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