TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Gov. Ron DeSantis and Democratic challenger Charlie Crist head to the debate stage Monday night for what may be Crist’s best — and perhaps last — opportunity to change the trajectory of the Florida governor’s race.
DeSantis, a Republican firebrand with presidential aspirations, is leading many polls after focusing on divisive cultural issues throughout much of his last four years in office. Crist, a former Republican governor who most recently served as a Democratic congressman, is eager to stop DeSantis' political rise.
The debate, which was postponed from earlier in the month because of Hurricane Ian, coincides with the start of early voting across much of the state. It is the first and only governor’s debate before the final votes are cast on Nov. 8.
The Florida governor's race may not be the nation's most competitive election this fall, but Monday's debate is a rare moment for DeSantis to face questions outside the friendly conservative media circles he gravitates toward.
“He doesn't like answering questions,” Crist said in an interview. "When he gets asked innocent, fair questions by journalists, he bristles. I don’t think it’s gonna take a whole lot to get to that boiling point for him. He’s a bully.”
DeSantis' campaign did not respond to an interview request.
State GOP Chairman Joe Gruters suggested that one issue matters this fall more than all others: President Joe Biden.
“This election is a referendum on Biden, on his policies," Gruters said. “All this other stuff is noise.” He said Floridians are struggling “to survive in this Biden economy.”
Meanwhile, Democrats have been trying to focus voters' attention on DeSantis' conservative record — especially the law he signed in April banning abortions at 15 weeks of pregnancy, with no exceptions for rape or incest.
DeSantis, 44, has also signed into law a measure banning critical race theory and LGBTQ issues from many Florida schools. He led efforts to eliminate the Disney Corp.’s special tax status for condemning his so-called Don’t Say Gay bill. And in recent weeks, he flew dozens of Venezuelan immigrants from Texas to a small island off the Massachusetts coast to call attention to illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border.
His critics are many, but DeSantis' popularity has surged in Florida, and among Republicans across the nation, especially after he led the GOP's resistance to the pandemic-related public health measures in 2020. He's also benefited from a broader conservative shift in the state, a trend a decade in the making.
DeSantis has been largely focused in recent days on recovery efforts after Hurricane Ian, which left more than 100 people dead along the state's southwest coast. While delivering a storm update over the weekend, he also promised to eliminate sales taxes on diapers, wipes and other baby-related items.
“We’re trying to help lessen the blow of what Washington has done,” DeSantis said, slapping at the Democrats who currently control Congress and the White House. “Obviously, we have an election coming up. You could see a change in leadership in the U.S. Congress potentially. Maybe the policies will change. We’ll see.”
Crist, 66, said he's most focused on DeSantis' abortion ban and the governor's inability to reduce the cost of living in Florida under his watch, especially insurance costs.
“DeSantis is running for president and doesn’t seem to care about these kitchen-table issues in Florida,” Crist said.
The debate is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Sunrise Theater in Fort Pierce and will be broadcast on local television stations across the state.
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