By Steve Contorno, CNN
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Democrat Charlie Crist went toe-to-toe on abortion, Hurricane Ian response, the state’s ongoing culture wars and the rising Republican’s future political ambitions in an hour-long debate that produced a handful of notable moments that may just yet fire up Democrats in this state.
Down in the polls and nearly out of campaign money, Crist entered the Sunrise Theatre in Fort Pierce, Florida, with almost nothing left to lose and he repeatedly put DeSantis on the defensive over the divisive agenda that has catapulted the Republican into GOP stardom. Crist’s objective Monday was twofold: build momentum for the final weeks of the Florida race and bruise the national reputation of DeSantis, who is also weighing a potential presidential primary campaign against former President Donald Trump as he seeks reelection 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 lines. DeSantis appeared less at ease on the debate stage than at his hand-crafted news conferences orchestrated to showcase his signature combative style. It was a conventional performance of a front-runner — and with a comfortable lead and almost $100 million left in the bank, DeSantis is certainly that, albeit one who has risen up the GOP’s presidential power rankings by bucking conventional wisdom.
Here are five takeaways from Monday’s first and only debate of Florida’s governor race.
DeSantis won’t commit to full four-year term
Crist entered the debate seeking to engineer a race-altering moment that could galvanize not just Florida Democrats but people around the country looking to slow DeSantis’ national rise.
With DeSantis and Crist often on opposing sides of a split screen and with a raucous crowd cheering over the objections of a debate moderator, the night produced plenty of opportunities for Crist to do just that.
In one such moment, Crist attempted to get DeSantis to commit to a full four-year term if he wins 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 DeSantis was focused on Biden because he wants to face the President in 2024.
“I have a question for you. You’re running for governor. 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?” Crist said. “Yes or no?”
DeSantis stared into the camera and didn’t respond, producing a prolonged silence.
Crist then chimed in, “It’s not a tough question. It’s a fair question. He won’t tell you.”
Debate moderator WPEC anchor Liz Quirantes informed the audience that the candidates did not agree to ask each other questions directly on stage.
When Crist’s time expired, DeSantis finally responded.
“I know that Charlie’s interested in talking about 2024, in Joe Biden,” DeSantis said. “But 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.”
DeSantis ducks on abortion
After the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in late June, DeSantis in a statement said he would take steps to “protect life” in Florida, but he has declined in the months since to say what that action might be. When Quirantes asked DeSantis what week abortion access should be cut off in Florida, the governor said he was “proud” of the state’s 15-week ban that he signed into law earlier this year but didn’t say if he would support legislation to further restrict access in the state.
“I just think we’re better when everybody counts,” DeSantis said. “I understand not everyone’s going to be born in perfect circumstances, but I would like to see everybody have a shot.”
Crist criticized the response for not answering the question and said the state’s new 15-week ban was “callous” and barbaric.” The law includes exemptions for a fatal fetal abnormality if two physicians confirm the diagnosis in writing or when a pregnancy is a “serious risk” to the mother. It does not allow exemptions for rape, incest or human trafficking.
“We just found out recently about a case of a middle school girl near Jacksonville, who was a victim of incest, became impregnated because of the bill you signed, governor,” Crist said. “She had to go two to three states in order to take care of this issue.”
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 characterized himself as “pro-life.”
“The question is, is this an honest change of heart? Or is this a guy that’s going to shift with whatever when he needs to to try to keep his political career alive?” DeSantis said. “I think we all know the answer to that question.”
DeSantis defends his most controversial actions
Though coy about abortion, DeSantis more willingly defended his other actions that have drawn frequent criticism and lawsuits from Democrats, migrant groups, LGBTQ groups and their allies, but that have also generated broad appeal to the GOP base in Florida and beyond.
On new state rules preventing certain transgender health care for minors, DeSantis likened “gender affirming care” to “chemically castrating young boys,” adding: “A lot of kids go through a lot of different things. A lot of the dysphoria resolves itself by the time they become adults.”
On the flights he orchestrated that took migrants from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, he said, “It’s sad that it comes to this but what we did put this issue front and center.”
On banning critical race theory from the classroom, DeSantis said, “I don’t want to teach kids to hate our country. I don’t want to teach kids to hate each other and the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
In a comment that seemed aimed at much of DeSantis’ defense on these topics, Crist said, “He talks about it like it’s fun. It’s not. These are difficult issues and they deserve mature leadership.”
The hurricane test
Crist and Biden have been in lockstep over the President’s agenda for much of their two years overlapping in Washington. But Crist made clear Monday he disagrees with Biden’s assessment of DeSantis’ storm management.
At a joint appearance earlier this month in Fort Myers Beach, where Hurricane Ian destroyed most beachfront property, Biden told reporters DeSantis’ response to the devastation was “pretty remarkable.” Crist, though, accused DeSantis of leaving people in harm’s way.
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?” Crist said. “That’s not a good record. And that’s not good leadership.”
DeSantis said Crist was trying to “politicize” the response.
“Our message was listen to your locals, it’s ultimately a local decision,” DeSantis said. “I stand by every one of our local counties. They stood up, they worked hard and they made the best decisions with the information that they had.”
DeSantis became a political force through his management of the Covid-19 pandemic and it remains a frequent focal point of the stump speeches he delivers in Florida and beyond.
If Crist had been governor at the time, DeSantis said, “it would have thrown millions of Floridians into turmoil.”
“And I can tell you as Charlie Crist and his friends in Congress were urging you to be locked down, I lifted you up,” DeSantis said. “I protected your rights. I made sure you could earn a living. I made sure you could operate your businesses and I worked like heck to make sure we had all our kids in 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 Floridians have gotten Covid under your leadership,” he said. “Now that’s not something to be boastful and proud of.”
Crist also brought some dizzying logic to the debate when he called DeSantis “the only governor in the history of Florida” to shut down schools and businesses, a nod to the period early in the 2020 pandemic 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 science, to do what’s right, to utilize common sense. You don’t just shut down at the outset.”
But those mitigation strategies, including social distancing and halting 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 into the pandemic.
DeSantis said he reopened schools against the objections of teacher unions, a key Crist ally.
“We just got the Nation’s Report Card, the results from all 50 states,” DeSantis said. “Florida: number three in fourth grade reading and number four in the country in fourth grade math. … That would not have happened if we let Charlie Crist and his friends lock our kids out of school like they did in California and like they did in New York. We did it right in Florida.”
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