DeSantis, in testy debate with Dem rival, sidesteps 2024 question

In one of the most heated moments, Crist asked DeSantis to tell Floridians whether he’d carry out his full second term if re-elected, which garnered an awkward pause during the debate as DeSantis waited to answer.

“Why don’t you look in the eyes of the people of Florida and say to them, if you’re reelected you will serve a full four year term as governor. Yes or no,” Crist prodded. “Yes or no, Ron?” After several seconds, DeSantis responded: “I know that Charlie is itching to talk about 2024 and Joe Biden. 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.”

The debate was seen as Crist’s last chance to disrupt DeSantis’s attempt at a second term, and the former congressman tried to paint the governor as an extremist.

But DeSantis has vastly outspent Crist and most polls show the GOP governor leading his Democratic rival. Crist has also been swamped on television as the DeSantis campaign has outspent him by a roughly four-to-one margin in the past two months.

And over the past four years, DeSantis has consolidated power within the state and positioned himself as one of the leading Republicans in America. In many polls, DeSantis comes in second among Republican voters only to former President Donald Trump, although the Republican governor has repeatedly downplayed speculation that he has presidential ambitions.

Crist, however, repeatedly accused DeSantis of prioritizing his personal political ambitions and focusing on cultural issues that divided the state instead of taking time to respond to the state’s affordable housing crisis. He pressed him on several issues, including whether he would push for a complete and total ban on all abortions in the state if he is re-elected. DeSantis earlier this year signed into law a ban on all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape or incest.

Crist noted recent news accounts about how a middle school student who got pregnant as a result of incest had to travel to another state in order to get an abortion because of Florida’s new law.

“That’s not compassionate leadership, that’s not doing the right thing, that’s not even having a heart,” Crist said. “That’s callous. It’s barbaric and it’s wrong and Florida deserves better.”

DeSantis would not say during the debate whether he would push for a complete ban and instead mentioned the mother of new Florida Supreme Court Justice Renatha Francis, who had initially considered getting an abortion only to change her mind.

The governor then suggested Crist was in favor of allowing abortions up to the moment of birth while also slamming him for changing his political positions as a Democrat after previously serving as a Republican.

“Is this an honest change of heart or is this a guy that’s going to shift with whatever wind he needs to?” DeSantis asked.

DeSantis, for his part, repeatedly tethered Biden and Crist together as he blamed the current administration for inflation, rising energy prices and a surge in immigration across the nation’s Southern border.

“He’s locked together with these policies that have hurt so many people,” DeSantis said.

A portion of the debate also focused on the governor’s policies enacted in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. DeSantis repeatedly asserted that Crist was in favor of lockdowns and other Covid-19 mandates that DeSantis has built a national reputation rejecting.

“He called for harsh lockdowns in 2020,” DeSantis said. “If that would have happened, it would have destroyed the state of Florida… I lifted you up. I protected your rights.”

Crist pushed back by contending that Florida had a higher death rate than other states and said that the governor consistently rejected science and was “arrogant” about many of the positions he has taken. More than 80,000 people in Florida died from Covid-19.

He also tried to assert that DeSantis had himself flipped on his policies, noting how early on in the pandemic, DeSantis had supported the closing of schools and businesses. DeSantis, however, moved to reopen businesses quicker than in many other states and pushed to reopen schools in the fall of 2020 despite getting pushback from some school districts and the teacher’s union.

That wasn’t the only education issues that provoked strong disagreement between the two candidates. DeSantis defended his decision to back the “Parental Rights in Education” bill — called “Don’t Say Gay” by opponents — that bars classroom instructions on gender orientation or sexual identity in early grades. He also explained why he supported a push to carry critical race theory in schools and his support for a bill that prohibits schools from leveling guilt or blame at students and employees based on race or sex.

“I don’t want to teach our kids to hate our country,” DeSantis said.

Crist retorted by saying children should be taught “facts.” Later in the debate, during a discussion about a Florida effort to bar physicians from performing gender-affirming procedures on minors as a treatment for gender dysphoria, he hammered DeSantis for being judgmental.

“You don’t have the temperament to be kind and decent to other people who don’t look like you, who don’t act like you and don’t contribute to you,” Crist said.

Crist, 66, was once elected Florida’s governor as a Republican, but he ultimately switched parties and mounted his second run for governor against Rick Scott in 2014. That race was extremely tight down the stretch but Crist — after easily knocking off Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried in the primary — came into the debate as a serious underdog.

The 44-year-old DeSantis barely won his race for governor four years ago, but the dynamics of the state have shifted during that time period as a wave of people have flocked to the state in the immediate aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. Republicans now outnumber Democrats among active registered voters, changing the political make up of the once-perennial swing state to lean Republican.

The debate was initially scheduled for earlier in the month, but was pushed back in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, the deadly storm that slammed into the state in late September. The storm — and its impact on the state — triggered sparring over what to do with the state’s fragile property insurance market, with DeSantis promising to hold a special session later this year that will include cracking down on lawsuits against insurers. Crist faulted DeSantis for the rising insurance rates over the last few years.

And while Biden previously praised DeSantis’ hurricane response, Crist asserted that the governor did not move decisively enough to press authorities in Lee County to evacuate ahead of the storm. DeSantis responded by contending that Crist sent out fundraising requests to storm victims.

DeSantis and Crist squared off the same day that early voting started in more than half of the state’s counties, including those that contain major urban centers such as Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando and Tampa.

More than 1.16 million voters have already cast ballots by mail, according to the latest numbers posted by Florida’s Division of Elections.