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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Four takeaways from the DeSantis-Crist debate in Florida’s governor race

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Charlie Crist debated on Monday night in Fort Pierce, Fla., an event that was postponed earlier in the month after Hurricane Ian struck the state.

By Patricia Mazzei and Maggie Astor

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Charlie Crist, his Democratic challenger, debated for the only time in the Florida governor’s race on Monday night, a rowdy exchange featuring a raucous crowd and a slew of culture war issues that have dominated the state’s political discourse.

Crist, a former congressman and governor with plenty of debate experience, gave a polished performance as he went on the attack. But no single moment from Crist seemed like it would upend the dynamics of the contest. Public polls show DeSantis, a Republican, comfortably ahead in the race, a rarity for Florida, which until recently had some of the tightest contests in the nation.

The debate, initially scheduled for Oct. 12, was postponed because of Hurricane Ian, a destructive Category 4 storm that struck Southwest Florida on Sept. 28, killing more than 100 people.

The moderator, Liz Quirantes of WPEC, struggled to keep the audience quiet in Fort Pierce, which regularly applauded, cheered, jeered and interrupted the exchanges. Some of Quirantes’ questions, which she said came from viewers, appeared to be leading the candidates toward conservative points of view. WPEC is a CBS affiliate owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Here are four takeaways:

The DeSantis White House speculation isn’t going away.

Crist repeatedly cast DeSantis as more interested in running for president in 2024 than in governing Florida.

“Gov. DeSantis has taken his eye off the ball,” Crist said, accusing the governor of focusing on national issues and fundraising outside the state. (DeSantis has far out-raised Crist.)

Twice, Crist asked DeSantis point-blank if he would serve a full, four-year term if reelected. DeSantis ignored the question as the moderator noted that the candidates had agreed not to ask each other questions.

“The only worn-out old donkey I’m looking to put out to pasture is Charlie Crist,” DeSantis said.

The governor frequently turned his attention to President Joe Biden, the Democrat he would most likely challenge if he were to seek the presidency, and tried to tie him to Crist. Biden’s approval rating is underwater in Florida, though the president still plans to travel to the state to rally for Crist and other Democrats next week.

“Charlie Crist has voted with Joe Biden 100% of the time to give us these inflationary policies and to drive up the costs of everything that we’re doing,” DeSantis said.

The death toll from Hurricane Ian became a sticking point.

At least 114 people died because of Hurricane Ian in Florida, making it the deadliest storm in the state in almost 90 years. Many of the dead were older or vulnerable people who became trapped in their homes or cars and drowned. The New York Times found that Lee County, home to the hard-hit city of Fort Myers, did not follow its own plans for evacuating people before the hurricane.

Crist accused DeSantis of not using his bully pulpit to encourage people to get out before the storm made landfall — and noted that more than 82,000 Floridians have died during the coronavirus pandemic under DeSantis’ watch.

“Whether it comes to COVID or it comes to the hurricane, Ron ignored science,” Crist said.

DeSantis countered that evacuations are mandated by county officials and not by the state. “Our message was, ‘Listen to your locals,’ ” he said. “It’s ultimately a local decision. But I stand by every one of our local counties.”

Neither DeSantis nor Crist answered the question about whether there should be limits on construction along the Florida coast given the increase in the frequency and intensity of hurricanes. Crist blamed DeSantis for allowing the state’s property insurance market to fray; DeSantis countered that insurance rates had risen because of excessive lawsuits.

DeSantis made false and misleading statements about abortion.

It was clear from the start that Crist was eager to talk about abortion, one of Democrats’ preferred topics in an otherwise unfavorable election cycle. The first question was about housing policy, but he began by saying the election was “a stark contrast between somebody who believes in a woman’s right to choose” and DeSantis, who signed a 15-week abortion ban that, Crist emphasized, includes no exceptions for rape and incest.

Later, asked whether abortion should be banned after a specific week in pregnancy, DeSantis made a number of false or misleading claims.

He accused Crist of supporting abortion “up until the moment of birth.” That is a common Republican claim, but abortion until the moment of birth doesn’t exist, even in states without gestational limits. He also said Crist supported “dismemberment abortions,” a pejorative term for procedures performed later in pregnancy that, when they do happen, are often prompted by medical emergencies or severe fetal abnormalities. (More than 92% of abortions in the United States are performed much earlier, in the first trimester.)

‘Culture war’ issues took up a lot of bandwidth.

More than perhaps any other sitting governor, DeSantis has used issues like race and transgender rights to stir up his conservative base.

That was on display in Monday’s debate, in which he gave a graphic and inaccurate description of gender-affirming care for transgender children, suggesting falsely that doctors were “mutilating” minors. In reality, gender-affirming care — which major medical associations, including pediatric associations, endorse — primarily involves social support, nonpermanent treatments like puberty blockers (which DeSantis also denounced), and hormonal treatments.

Crist responded by bringing the topic, once again, back to abortion: “This reminds me of your position on a woman’s right to choose,” he said. “You think you know better than any physician or any doctor or any woman in a position to make decisions about their own personal health.”

In a segment on education, DeSantis also repeated his frequent claims that Democrats like Crist want to teach white children to view themselves as oppressors because of their race. He acknowledged that it was important for history curriculums to include “all of American history,” including slavery and segregation, but said: “I’m proud of our history. I don’t want to teach kids to hate our country.”

Crist scoffed at the idea that children were being taught to hate themselves or each other, saying, “I don’t know where you get that idea” — and then accusing DeSantis of focusing on the issue to avoid talking about abortion.

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