He came out swinging — rhetorically.
Trailing in the polls and vastly outspent, Crist went at DeSantis at the outset of the hourlong debate from Fort Pierce’s Sunrise Theatre.
“You’re going to hear a stark contrast in this debate and this election,” Crist said in his opening statement. “It’s a stark contrast between somebody who believes in a woman’s right to choose, I think that’s fundamentally important, and Gov. DeSantis has signed a bill that would restrict that right, even in cases of rape or incest.”
Debate recap: Ron DeSantis and Charlie Crist face off in debate
DeSantis didn’t immediately respond to the abortion topic. But he did repeatedly work over the hour to link his Democratic opponent to President Biden, who is unpopular in most polls.
DeSantis cited the “Biden-Crist energy policies” for raising gas prices, the “Biden-Crist economy,” for inflation, and said the Democrat shared in what he sees as the failure of Biden’s border policies.
Looking back on his first term, DeSantis concluded, “We’ve accomplished an awful lot. But we’ve only just begun.”
Crist, a three-term, Democratic congressman from St. Petersburg and a former Republican governor of Florida, came off through the hour as a practiced debater, making his seventh statewide run for office. DeSantis, seeking a second term as Florida’s chief executive, defended his record across a barrage of questions about housing, critical race theory, illegal immigration, abortion and more.
Here are five takeaways from the debate:
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DeSantis weaves around abortion question
Crist has tried to make the governor’s race a referendum on abortion rights in Florida, but DeSantis stuck to defending the law he signed banning most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
“I would like to see everybody have a shot,” DeSantis said. “I’m proud of the 15 weeks that we did. I know Charlie Crist opposes that even though the baby is fully formed, has a heartbeat, can feel pain and can suck their thumb.”
The 15-week law went into effect July 1, although a Leon County judge ruled it violates the state constitution’s privacy protections but allowed it to stay on the books while it’s appealed.
DeSantis for months has dodged questions about what further restrictions he wants, although after the U.S. Supreme Court in June gave states full authority to regulate abortion, the governor said he does want to “expand pro-life protections.”
DeSantis’ office has spoken behind-the-scenes with anti-abortion advocates and leading lawmakers since the court ruling and many think he’ll propose a new ban on abortions after six-weeks of pregnancy next year.
“Do you want to ban abortion completely?” Crist demanded of DeSantis, who didn’t answer.
“I want to make sure we keep a woman’s right to choose available to the women of the state of Florida,” Crist said, adding, “and I want to make sure that we don’t have a governor in the future who wouldn’t even allow exceptions for rape or incest.”
Can you afford Florida?
Crist said Floridians are being priced out of their state under DeSantis, with housing costs way up, rentals hard to find, and an expected utility rate increase recently postponed by the governor-appointed Public Service Commission until after Election Day.
“Good luck buying a home. Good luck renting an apartment. And it’s because Gov. DeSantis has taken his eye off the ball,” Crist said. “He’s focused on running for president in 2024.”
DeSantis, though, said the state’s economy is humming.
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The state’s unemployment rate fell to 2.5% last month, the second lowest level ever recorded. Also, Florida’s population continues to swell with new residents and tourists, who DeSantis said are attracted by the “free state of Florida” policies he enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic and its general hands-off regulatory climate.
DeSantis approved a record $1.3 billion in mostly consumer-oriented tax breaks this year. He also kept schools open through most of the pandemic, in contrast to many states that shut down, putting more pressure on families and hurting academics.
The governor said Hurricane Ian has added to an already troubled property insurance market. But he defended having pushed for legislative action in May to help prop up the industry, a move he plans to repeat before the end of the year.
He blamed Biden for at least some of the state’s problems.
“I think we have the worst inflation of 40 years,” DeSantis said. “It’s much more expensive to replace a roof today than just three years ago, thanks to the Biden-Crist policies that unfortunately is contributing to the increase.”
A contrast in styles
In public appearances as governor over the past four years, DeSantis flanks himself with agency heads, Republican legislators and Floridians who praise him for his policies and approach.
But on the stage of Fort Pierce’s Sunrise Theatre, only DeSantis and Crist were the attraction. And Crist was relentless in his criticism of his rival’s leadership and style, which has included the embrace of culture war issues, mocking of President Biden and the defiance of COVID safety policies.
DeSantis, though, mostly stayed cool.
“I lifted you up, while some like Charlie Crist wanted to lock you down,” DeSantis said.
Among the only moments when DeSantis appeared to become rattled were when Crist returned several times to demanding that the governor answer whether he would serve a full four-year term if re-elected. The moderator noted that debate rules prohibited candidates from asking each other questions.
DeSantis, expected to join a likely crowded Republican field for president in two years, didn’t answer.
He also pushed back on Crist, recalling how as Republican governor during the Great Recession, he raised taxes by $2.2 billion to close a $6 billion budget shortfall.
Crist, 66, and DeSantis, 44, also were a generational contrast before the TV cameras. Crist cited his wearing a gold wristband, that reminds him of the golden rule’s “do unto others.”
Crist said to DeSantis, “Ron, if you ever knew the golden rule, clearly you have forgotten it.”
DeSantis swung back, chiding Crist for his frequent statewide runs and three decades in Florida politics. He used it to deflect a question about his prospects of challenging Biden in two years.
“The only tired old worn-out donkey I’m looking to put out to pasture is Charlie Crist,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis spent $1.5 million in Florida taxpayer money in September to fly 48 Venezuelan asylum-seekers from San Antonio, Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in September.
“I thought what the governor did was a horrible political stunt,” Crist said.
The flights appeared to be the governor’s way of topping the busing of undocumented immigrants to Washington, D.C., and New York City that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, both Republicans, had been doing to underscore their opposition to President Biden’s immigration policies on the Mexican border.
DeSantis’ scheme, though, has drawn a Texas sheriff’s investigation into whether he was effectively trafficking migrants. He’s also been sued by a Florida Democratic state senator over his use of a $12 million state program which the state’s Republican-led legislature created and was to be used only to relocate migrants from Florida — not Texas.
DeSantis, though, had no regrets, saying it shined a light on the failures of the Biden administration border policies.
“We have elites in this country who want to impose policies on you,” DeSantis said, saying only when New York, Washington or Martha’s Vineyard are affected.
He said his action, “put this issue front and center.”
Voting rights and wrongs
Under DeSantis, Florida has imposed new limits on where ballot drop boxes can be located, made it tougher to vote by mail, and enhanced penalties potentially facing voter registration organizations.
The governor has said it’s designed to combat election fraud. But his creation of a new Office of Election Crimes and Security has enflamed Democrats, especially since the first round of arrests by the office overwhelmingly targeted Black residents.
“You love dividing our state, you know, whether it’s Blacks against whites, whether it’s gay against straight, whether it’s young versus old,” Crist said. “You’re making it harder for people to vote in our state.”
Of the measure tightening vote-by-mail, Crist said, “That’s anti-democracy.”
DeSantis scoffed at Crist’s conclusion that he has sowed division in Florida over his four years. He cited his opponent’s concluding that some DeSantis supporters had hate in their hearts.
“The day after Charlie Crist won his (August) primary, he said anyone that supports the governor, you have hate in your heart and I don’t want your vote. Well, think what that means,” DeSantis said.
The governor pointed to organizations supporting him, including law enforcement, retailers and truckers. He said those backing him aren’t driven by hate.
Rather, “they want to keep Florida free,” DeSantis said.
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at [email protected], or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport