FORT PIERCE, FLORIDA — The long-awaited gubernatorial debate between Governor Ron DeSantis and Charlie Crist likely did not disappoint many viewers. Attendees at the event proved a raucous crowd, cheering and jeering after comments from both the incumbent and challenger.
CBS 12’s Liz Quirantes moderated the debate. As expected, questions focused on issues related to education, immigration, COVID response, home insurance, inflation, abortion, transgender policies and Hurricane Ian.
Early and often, DeSantis went after Crist’s alignment with President Joe Biden, referring to “the Biden-Crist agenda” multiple times.
Crist, meanwhile, focused his attacks on what he called “divisive” leadership from the governor. He also violated an agreement both candidates made before the debate to refrain from asking questions of one another. Twice, Crist used part of his time to ask DeSantis if he would be running for President in 2024.
COVID RESPONSE AND MANDATES
DeSantis’ decision to reopen businesses and protect employees against the threat of losing their job due to vaccination status garnered widespread media criticism. However, it also prompted many Americans to relocate to Florida from blue states where they were deprived of their freedom of choice.
“That would not have happened if Charlie Crist was governor,” DeSantis said during the debate before referencing a letter Crist wrote him asking the governor to shut down the state. “I rejected Charlie Crist’s lockdown letter. I kept this state free.”
DeSantis added that Crist’s “harsh lockdowns […] would have destroyed the state of Florida and […] thrown millions of Floridians into turmoil.”
Earlier this year, Crist said he would be open to mask mandates and advocated for vaccine mandates in September 2021. Surprisingly, Crist seemed to criticize the governor for closing schools at all, saying to DeSantis, “You’re the one who’s the shutdown guy.”
DeSantis quipped back, adding: “His supporters sued me to keep the kids out of schools.”
Karla Hernandez-Mats, Crist’s running mate and Miami teacher union president, set up a protest to keep schools closed in September 2020. She brought hearses outside of a school board meeting, insinuating kids would die if schools were opened up.
Crist also argued that DeSantis’ COVID approach was responsible for 40,000 of the state’s 82,000 deaths.
Like many other Democrats, Crist has made abortion a primary focus in his campaign. He’s done his best to weaponize the recent Dobbs decision against pro-life DeSantis, featuring it in television ads. For his part, DeSantis has been uncharacteristically reticent on the polarizing issue. After the decision, he tweeted a statement that said “we will work to expand pro-life protections.” When pressed for further comment soon after, his press secretary told The Tallahassee Democrat, “We very much look forward to pursuing additional legislative protections for the unborn.”
During the debate, Crist repeatedly championed “a woman’s right to choose” and called pro-life protections for pre-born children “barbaric.” DeSantis employed pathos by telling the story of the mother of Jamaican-born Renatha Francis, the recently appointed Florida Supreme Court Justice. Francis’ mother, a poor woman, was urged to get an abortion, but decided to keep the baby.
“I think it’s better when everybody counts. I understand that not everybody is going to be born in perfect circumstances, but I’d like to see everybody have a shot,” the governor said.
DeSantis also used the topic to attack Crist’s flip-flopping on abortion, accusing the former Republican of political opportunism.
Crist served as the state’s governor from 2007–2011 as a Republican. He became a Democrat in 2012, saying, “I didn’t leave the Republican Party; it left me.” Crist lost his first bid for a second term when he failed to unseat incumbent Republican Governor Rick Scott in the 2014 gubernatorial race. He dodged questions about his ideological changes during an appearance on The View earlier this year.
GENDER TRANSITIONING FOR MINORS
When asked about gender transition for minors, the governor offered a direct response, arguing against common “treatment” options such as puberty blocking drugs, breast removal surgery, genital mutilation and chemical castration.
“That is wrong, we’re not going to allow that in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said. “A lot of dysphoria resolves itself when they’re older.”
Crist initially used the question as an opportunity to grandstand for his pro-choice stance on abortion. He eventually called questions related to gender transition “difficult issues” and went after the governor’s strong stance by employing biblical rhetoric.
“You want to be the judge,” Crist said. “If you ever knew the Golden Rule, clearly you have forgotten it.”
Both candidates were asked about the new Parental Rights in Education law, which prohibits teachers from leading classroom discussions on gender identity or sexual orientation for students in kindergarten through third grade.
Crist accused DeSantis of creating “political warzones out of schools.”
The governor retorted by accusing Crist of “waging a culture war” by “telling a 6-year-old they were born in the wrong body.”
When asked about the governor’s decision to ban Critical Race Theory from schools, Crist claimed that DeSantis supports a “whitewashed approach to educating our children.”
DeSantis denounced educators who “scapegoat students based on skin color” and added, “I don’t want to teach kids to hate our country.”
DeSantis claimed that Crist would mandate vaccines for children. Since the allotted time for responses had been completed, Quirantes would not allow Crist to address the accusation.
Crist went after DeSantis for not accurately predicting where Hurricane Ian would make landfall, criticizing him for attending a football game days before the storm arrived.
“Governor DeSantis failed on this,” Crist said about the prediction. “Ron ignored science… He thinks he’s the only one who has the right answer.”
DeSantis rejected what he called a “politicized” attack on prediction, pointing out that most projections had the storm making landfall in the Tampa area. Instead he pointed to the state’s response that included “thousands of rescues” and turning “power back on for millions of people in record time,” as well as important bridge repairs completed far ahead of schedule.
Crist denied the governor’s accusation that he had been soliciting campaign contributions from Hurricane Ian victims just days after the storm devastated the state.
But The Florida Standard reported on those donation requests, which took place in late September. At the time, Crist’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.