TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – Defiant as ever, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis fiercely defended his response to the COVID-19 pandemic and his focus on divisive cultural issues in his first and only re-election debate Monday, as Democrat Charlie Crist accused his Republican rival of distracted by his national political ambitions.
Crist charged that DeSantis was already focused on running for president and pressured his opponent to commit to serving his second full four-year term. DeSantis did not directly answer the question.
“I know Charlie is interested in talking 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,” DeSantis said of his 66-year-old opponent.
“You won’t even say if you want to be governor of Florida after this election,” Crist said.
Florida’s gubernatorial race may not be the nation’s most competitive election this fall, but that’s no less consequential for DeSantis, a 44-year-old Harvard-educated Republican who could launch a presidential run in the coming months. He hopes to use a strong re-election victory on November 8 in Florida, a state he carried by just 32,000 votes out of 8.2 million cast four years ago, to demonstrate the breadth and strength of his support.
Monday’s debate also offered voters in Florida and beyond a rare opportunity to see DeSantis under pressure. Like many leading GOP officials across the country this fall, he has largely avoided off-script moments in recent months, except for periodic interviews with friendly conservative media outlets.
DeSantis, a conservative firebrand, has delighted his supporters time and time again with his extraordinary willingness to fight — whether he’s facing political opponents, the federal government or powerful Florida businesses. Crist, a former Republican governor who most recently served as a Democratic congressman, has sought to present himself as a moderate alternative to lead the perennial swing state.
The candidates, both in dark suits and purple ties, faced each other behind wooden lecterns at Fort Pierce, Florida’s Sunrise Theatre. And both men appeared to be enjoying the fight during a tough one-hour affair.
Crist charged that DeSantis closed businesses and schools across the state early during the pandemic and then ignored science by opening them too soon, leading to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
“You are the only governor in the history of Florida to ever close our schools,” Crist said. “You’re the one who’s the shutdown guy.”
DeSantis shot back: “I kept the state open and I kept the state free,” he said.
Again and again, DeSantis attacked Crist as a close ally of Biden, whose popularity is declining in Florida and across the country. “Charlie Crist has voted with Joe Biden 100% of the time,” DeSantis said, referring to the Crist-Biden agenda.
DeSantis also defended his focus on divisive cultural issues, which has been a hallmark of his first term.
Crist repeatedly highlighted DeSantis’ opposition to abortion rights and seized on the law he signed in April ban on abortions at 15 weeks of pregnancy, with no exceptions for rape or incest. DeSantis declined to answer a question from the moderator about whether he supports a complete abortion ban.
“You deserve a better governor who cares about freedom and your right to choose,” Crist said.
DeSantis also defended a law he signed banning critical race theory and LGBTQ issues from many Florida schools. He led the effort to eliminate Disney Corp.’s special tax status to condemn his so-called Don’t Say Gay bill. And when Crist accused him of using Hispanic immigrants as “political pawns,” DeSantis defended his decision to fly dozens of Venezuelan immigrants from Texas to a small island off the coast of Massachusetts to raise awareness of illegal immigration at the US-Mexico border.
“It’s all about culture wars. It’s all about sharing us,” Crist said of DeSantis.
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