FLORIDA — Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Democrat Charlie Crist clashed over abortion, the response to Hurricane Ian, the state’s ongoing culture wars and the rising Republican’s future political ambitions in a debate an hour that produced a handful of notable moments that may well inflame Democrats in this state yet again.
Down in the polls and nearly out of campaign cash, Crist entered the Sunrise Theater in Fort Pierce, Fla. with next to nothing to lose and he repeatedly put DeSantis on the defensive against the divisive schedule that catapulted the Republican into GOP stardom. Crist’s goal on Monday was twofold: build momentum for the final weeks of the race in Florida and bruise the national reputation of DeSantis, who is also considering a possible presidential campaign against former President Donald Trump as he seeks to be re-elected as governor.
In the face of Crist’s broadsides, DeSantis largely stayed the course, visibly gritting his teeth at times or feigning a smile, while sticking to his talking points and delivering a series of well-timed retorts. DeSantis appeared less comfortable on the debate stage than at his crafted press conferences orchestrated to showcase his signature combative style. It was a conventional performance from a frontrunner — and with a comfortable lead and nearly $100 million left in the bank, DeSantis is certainly that, although he has boosted the GOP presidential power rankings by going to the against conventional wisdom.
Here are five takeaways from Monday’s first and only debate on Florida’s gubernatorial race.
DeSantis will not commit to a full four-year term
Crist entered the debate seeking to create a race-changing moment that could galvanize not just Democrats in Florida, but people across the country who seek to slow DeSantis’ national rise.
With DeSantis and Crist often on opposite sides of a split screen and with a raucous crowd cheering a debate moderator’s objections, the night gave Crist plenty of opportunities to do just that.
At one such time, Crist tried to convince DeSantis to commit to a full four-year term if he won in November.
DeSantis, considering a run for president in 2024, wouldn’t bite.
The exchange began with DeSantis comparing Crist’s policies to President Joe Biden. Crist responded by suggesting that DeSantis was focusing on Biden because he wanted to face the president in 2024.
“I have a question for you. You are a candidate for governor. Why don’t you look the people of the state of Florida in the eye and tell them that if you are re-elected, you will serve for four years governorship?” said Christ. “Yes or no?
DeSantis looked at the camera and didn’t respond, producing a prolonged silence.
Crist then added, “That’s not a hard question. It’s a fair question. He won’t tell you.”
WPEC debate host Liz Quirantes informed the audience that the candidates were not okay with asking each other questions directly on stage.
When Crist’s time expired, DeSantis finally responded.
“I know Charlie is interested in talking about 2024, Joe Biden,” DeSantis said. “But I just want to be very, very clear. The only old, worn donkey I’m looking to put out to pasture is Charlie Crist.”
DeSantis duck on abortion
After the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in late June, DeSantis said in a statement that he would take action to “protect life” in Florida, but he has declined in the months that followed to say what that action might be. When Quirantes asked DeSantis what week abortion access should be cut in Florida, the governor said he was ‘proud’ of the state’s 15-week ban he signed earlier. this year, but did not say whether he would support legislation to go further. restrict access in the state.
“I just think we’re better when everyone counts,” DeSantis said. “I understand that not everyone is going to be born into perfect circumstances, but I would like everyone to have a chance.”
Crist criticized the response for not answering the question and said the state’s new 15-week ban was “callous” and barbaric.” The law provides exemptions for fatal fetal abnormality if two doctors confirm the written diagnosis or when a pregnancy is a “serious risk” to the mother. It does not allow exemptions for rape, incest or human trafficking.
“We just recently discovered the case of a college girl near Jacksonville, who was a victim of incest, became pregnant because of the bill you signed, Governor,” Crist said. “She had to go to two or three states to sort this out.”
DeSantis accused Crist of only supporting abortion rights out of political expediency. He noted that when Crist was a Republican, he often considered himself on the other side of the abortion debate. Crist, a former GOP governor who left his party in 2010, once called himself a “pro-lifer.”
“The question is, is this an honest change of heart? Or is this a guy who’s going to change with anything when he needs to try to keep his political career alive?” said DeSantis. “I think we all know the answer to that question.”
DeSantis defends his most controversial actions
Although shy about abortion, DeSantis has more readily defended his other actions which have drawn frequent criticism and lawsuits from Democrats, migrant groups, LGBTQ groups and their allies, but have also garnered broad appeal from the GOP base in Florida and beyond.
Regarding new state rules preventing some transgender health care for minors, DeSantis compared “gender-affirming care” to “the chemical castration of young boys,” adding, “A lot of kids go through a lot of different things. Much of the dysphoria resolves by the time they become adults.”
Of the flights he orchestrated that took migrants from San Antonio, Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, he said: “It’s sad it’s come to this, but what we’ve done has brought this issue to the fore.”
Of the ban on critical race theory in the classroom, DeSantis said, “I don’t want to teach kids to hate our country. I don’t want to teach kids to hate themselves and the way to to end discrimination on the basis of race is to end discrimination on the basis of race.”
In a comment that seemed to target much of DeSantis’ defense of these topics, Crist said, “He talks about it like it’s fun. It’s not. These are tough issues and they deserve a mature leadership.”
Crist and Biden have been in tune with the president’s agenda for much of their overlapping two years in Washington. But Crist made it clear on Monday that he disagreed with Biden’s assessment of DeSantis’ storm handling.
During a joint appearance earlier this month in Fort Myers Beach, where Hurricane Ian destroyed most beachfront properties, Biden told reporters that DeSantis’ response to the devastation was “pretty remarkable “. Crist, however, accused DeSantis of putting people at risk.
Crist noted DeSantis attended a high school football game on the Friday before the storm made landfall and said he was ‘AWOL for almost 24 hours’ when a decision could have been made to evacuate Lee County.
“And as a result, 100 people lose their lives?” Christ said. “It’s not a good record. And it’s not good leadership.”
DeSantis said Crist was trying to “politicize” the response.
“Our message was to listen to your people, it’s ultimately a local decision,” DeSantis said. “I support each of our local counties. They stood up, they worked hard and they made the best decisions with the information they had.”
DeSantis has become a political force through his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and he remains a frequent focal point of the stump speeches he delivers in Florida and beyond.
Had Crist been governor at the time, DeSantis said, “it would have thrown millions of Floridians into turmoil.”
“And I can tell you Charlie Crist and his friends in Congress were urging you to get locked up, I lifted you up,” DeSantis said. “I protected your rights. I made sure you could earn a living. I made sure you could run your businesses and I worked like hell to make sure all of our kids went to school. in person five days a week.”
Crist attempted to challenge DeSantis’ perceived strength head-on.
“We have one of the highest death rates in America, Ron, and over 6 million of our fellow Floridaians have contracted Covid under your leadership,” he said. “Now that’s not something to brag about and be proud of.”
Crist also brought dizzying logic to the debate when he called DeSantis “the only governor in Florida history” to close schools and businesses, a nod to the early 2020 pandemic era. when the Sunshine State, like most of the country, followed pandemic mitigation measures encouraged by the Trump administration. Crist then said, “It’s important to listen to the science, to do the right thing, to use common sense. You don’t just shut up initially.”
But these mitigation strategies, including social distancing and stopping business activity, were recommended by scientists at the time. And Crist was one of 13 Florida Democrats in Congress who, in a letter, urged DeSantis to issue a stay-at-home order in March 2020 — weeks after the pandemic began.
DeSantis said he reopened schools over objections from teachers’ unions, a key Crist ally.
“We just got the national report card, the results from all 50 states,” DeSantis said. “Florida: Number three in fourth-grade reading and number four nationwide in fourth-grade math. … This wouldn’t have happened if we had let Charlie Crist and his friends kick our kids out of school like they did done in California and like they do in New York. We did it well in Florida.