In a fiery debate Monday night, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called Democratic challenger Charlie Crist a “worn-out old donkey” who votes with President Joe Biden “100 percent of the time,” while Crist portrayed the GOP governor as a divisive leader consumed by 2024 dreams of the White House.
The candidates’ sharp exchanges and frequent digs highlighted their extreme differences in policies ranging from abortion to transgender treatments to immigration to pandemic lockdowns at the Sunrise Theater in Fort Pierce, hosted by WPEC-CBS12. The in-studio audience was raucous throughout, responding to each man’s answers with whoops and applause.
“It’s all about culture wars, it’s all about dividing us,” said Crist, who repeatedly tagged DeSantis as a “divider” and himself as someone who wants to unite the state.
When the issue turned to abortion, DeSantis defended the 15-week ban he signed earlier this year shortly before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
“I just think we’re better when everybody counts,” he said. “I understand not everyone’s going to be born in perfect circumstances, but I would like to see everybody have a shot.”
Crist said he supports the right to abortion, but DeSantis challenged the former Republican’s beliefs, noting that he had previously backed a federal ban. “The question is, is this an honest change of heart?” DeSantis asked. “Or is this a guy that’s going to shift with whatever when he needs to try to keep his political career alive?”
The hour-long debate, the only one between the two before Election Day on Nov. 8, came on the first day of in-person early voting in Florida. DeSantis, who is seeking a second term, heads into the final stretch of the campaign well-positioned, with an average 10 percentage point lead in the polls, according to RealClearPolitics.com, and a massive fundraising advantage over his Democratic challenger.
On the debate stage, the match-up turned bluntly personal at times, with Crist portraying the governor as a serial liar who lacks the temperament to treat people respectfully, while DeSantis charged the Democrat was a party switcher and flip-flopper who was “hiding out” in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Ian landed on the Florida coast.
DeSantis repeatedly referred to “Biden-Crist policies,” while Crist retaliated with speculation about DeSantis’ run for president. He demanded DeSantis “look into the eyes” of Floridians and pledge that he will serve a full four-year term as governor if re-elected.
“Ron, you talk about Joe Biden a lot. I understand you think you’re gonna be running against him,” said Crist. “I can see how you might get confused, but you’re running for governor.”
When Crist posed the question about a presidential run directly to DeSantis, the moderator, CBS12 News anchor Liz Quirantes, interjected to remind the Democrat that the campaigns had previously agreed that the candidates would not be allowed to question each other.
DeSantis never responded about his future plans.
On Covid, DeSantis said he is “proud” to have kept Florida open, including its businesses and schools, arguing that following what other states were doing with lengthy lockdowns “would have destroyed the state” by crushing the tourism and hospitality industry. The governor accused Crist and “his friends in Congress” of wanting to lock down the state, putting kids’ education and jobs at risk.
Crist countered that 82,000 people died in Florida during the pandemic and said many families in the state may have an empty seat at their Thanksgiving table this year due to a loved one lost to the pandemic.
“I wouldn’t pat yourself on the back too much about your response to COVID,” Crist said to DeSantis. “And if we had only had the standard of other states in the United States, 40,000 of those people would still be alive. Enough to fill Tropicana Stadium in St. Petersburg. That’s tragic.”
Crist also pounced on the governor for using taxpayer dollars to fly Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, saying it was a heartless approach to the immigration crisis at the southern border.
“It’s sad that it comes to this,” DeSantis said, “but what we did put the issue front and center.”
The candidates also sparred over education and recent restrictions that Florida put in place about what young children can be taught in schools about gender and sexuality.
DeSantis took the position that children and young teenagers should not be allowed to undergo gender-affirming procedures, such as double mastectomies or “chemically castrating young boys.”
“A lot of the dysphoria resolves itself by the time they become adults,” said DeSantis. “We have a number of people that have spoken out in favor of what we’re doing to say, ‘You should not mutilate minors,’ and they went through this when they were minors.”
In response, Crist said DeSantis is taking the same approach to transgender issues as his stance on a woman’s right to abortion.
“You want to decide about what people should do with their own physical being, with the betterment of their health, with whether or not they want to make sure that they can practice their right to choose as a woman,” he said.
The only common ground the candidates shared was that Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz, who murdered 17 people and recently was sentenced to life without parole, should have received the death penalty. The debate did not include questions on gun control laws.
Kenya Cardonne and Aquiles Barreto worked on the video story. Natalie La Roche and Nicole Ardila authored the article.