MIAMI — Democrat Charlie Crist came to his first and only debate with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ready with just one question about his opponent's political aspirations Monday night.
“You’re running for governor,” Crist said, looking at DeSantis as the governor looked forward. “Why don’t you look in the eyes of the people of the state of Florida and say to them if you’re re-elected, you will serve a full four-year term as governor. Yes or no?”
DeSantis said nothing as four seconds ticked by and the debate hall started to fall quiet.
“Yes or no, Ron?” Crist asked again.
DeSantis asked the moderator about his allotted time.
“It’s not a tough question,” Crist said, filling the dead air. “It’s a fair question. He won’t tell ya.”
That's when the moderator, CBS affiliate WPEC’s Liz Quirantes, stepped in and pointed out that both sides had agreed they wouldn’t ask each other questions onstage.
DeSantis then went on the attack.
“Well, listen,” he said, “I know that Charlie’s 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.”
The exchange, which came during the first 20 minutes of the hourlong debate, underscored the dynamics of the race: Crist, the former governor trying to make a comeback by needling the sitting governor, and DeSantis, giving as acidly as he got.
On topics from housing and insurance to immigration and transgender therapies for kids, the candidates traded insults, precooked one-liners and talking points as each side’s supporters in the audience howled in derision of the other guy and approval of their own.
Crist called DeSantis “divisive” and a “bully,” while DeSantis repeatedly cast Crist as a Biden Democrat who voted with the president “100% of the time” before he stepped down from Congress to focus on the governor's race. When Crist blamed DeSantis for rising utility bills and the skyrocketing cost of hurricane insurance, DeSantis faulted Crist for supporting Biden’s policies amid rising inflation.
DeSantis is leading Crist in every major poll in Florida, with survey averages giving him as much as a 10 percentage-point lead in a state he won by less than half a percentage point in 2018.
Time and again Monday night, Crist returned to the issue of DeSantis’ looming decision about whether he would run for president in 2024. Each time, DeSantis refused to take the bait.
It wasn’t the only question DeSantis wouldn’t answer.
DeSantis, who signed a bill to outlaw abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy without exceptions for rape or incest, wouldn’t say whether he would enact further limitations — an issue he has ducked from reporters, as well.
Asked by the moderator after what week of pregnancy abortion should be banned, DeSantis pivoted to talking about how the mother of his newly appointed state Supreme Court justice, Renatha Francis, had been urged to abort her child but decided not to.
“I just think we’re better when everybody counts. I understand not everyone’s going to be born in perfect circumstances. But I would like to see everybody have a shot,” DeSantis said, accusing Crist of supporting “sex-selective abortions, which is used to discriminate against little girls.”
“He supports dismemberment abortions, where they literally will tear the baby limb from limb, and he supports taxpayer funding all the way up until the moment of birth, and that is wrong,” DeSantis said.
Crist accused DeSantis of lying and evading.
“He wouldn’t answer your question. Do you want to ban abortion completely? He never got to it. He talked about Jamaica,” Crist said. “I don’t want to ban abortion. I want to make sure we keep a woman’s right to choose available to the women of the state of Florida.”
Crist then highlighted the case of a middle school girl in Jacksonville who said she was raped but couldn’t get an abortion because she was more than 15 weeks pregnant. So she was taken to another state.
“That’s not compassionate leadership,” Crist said. “That’s not doing the right thing. That’s not even having a heart. That’s callous. It’s barbaric, and it’s wrong, and Florida deserves better.”
DeSantis hit back by noting that Crist, a former Republican, once ran as a “pro-life” conservative and was therefore “a little bit of a chameleon.”
“The question is, is this an honest change of heart?” he said. “Or is this the guy that’s going to shift with whatever wind he needs to to try to keep his political career alive? I think we all know the answer to that question.”
Crist was more evasive when it came to the issue of allowing teens to receive hormones or puberty blockers or have operations if they feel their gender identities don’t match their birth sex.
DeSantis has proposed banning the practices in Florida and, on the debate stage, decried “double mastectomies on young girls ... chemically castrating young boys … genital mutilation.”
Crist tried to turn the discussion more toward abortion.
“This reminds me of your position on a woman’s right to choose,” Crist 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.”
DeSantis then told Crist: “You support it for minors. You should be honest about the issue."
Crist was more direct in criticizing DeSantis for his “inhumane” use of Florida funds to fly Venezuelan migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, last month to make a political point about immigration at the southern border, which Crist acknowledged is a “problem.”
“I thought what the governor did was a horrible political stunt,” Crist said. “You’re willing to use people like that … and have them as props for your political gain? That’s not the way to change policy. You can change policy and do what’s right to secure the border by having comprehensive immigration reform. That’s what I voted for in Congress. When you were in Congress, you wouldn’t do it, because you want to keep this issue alive. You want to have it as a wedge issue. And you want to pull political stunts like you did with the taxpayers’ dollars of the people of Florida.”
Crist, however, avoided answering whether he thought Florida should be a "sanctuary state." And DeSantis then put the focus on Biden.
“You say you’re for a secure border, but this is all happening under the Biden administration and the policies that Charlie Crist supports,” DeSantis said, adding that the Martha’s Vineyard flights elevated the issue of immigration.
“We have elites in this country that want to impose policies on you, but they don’t want to have to suffer the same consequences that you may have to in your community,” he said. “What we did — it’s sad that it comes to this — but we did put this issue front and center.”
DeSantis also proudly touted his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his decision to reopen the state and public schools early, in addition to banning mask and vaccination mandates. Crist, in Congress at the time, opposed those steps.
“I can tell you as Charlie Crist and his friends in Congress were urging you to be locked down, I lifted you up,” DeSantis said. “I protected your rights. I made sure you could earn a living. I made sure you could operate your businesses. And I worked like heck to make sure we had all our kids in school in person five days a week.”
Crist pointed out DeSantis wasn’t talking about the people who had died and gotten sick from Covid on his watch.
“We had one of the highest death rates in America, Ron, and over 6 million of our fellow Floridians have gotten Covid under your leadership,” he said. “Now that’s not something to be boastful and proud about.”
DeSantis interpreted the data a different way, by age-adjusting mortality rates and saying: “Thirty-eight other states had higher Covid mortality rates for senior citizens than we did in Florida. And I think that that’s the approach people should have taken: focus on the vulnerable population, but make sure you’re not locking down the rest of the people. We’ve thrived as a result. That would not have happened if Charlie Crist had got his way and locked down the state of Florida in July of 2020.”
CORRECTION (Oct. 25, 2022, 8:54 AM): A previous version of this article misstated the television station of debate moderator Liz Quirantes. It’s CBS affiliate WPEC in West Palm Beach, not CBS station WFOR in Miami.