Five takeaways from the DeSantis-Crist debate in Florida

Politics

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Monday squared off against former Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) for the first and only time in a debate that put into stark contrast their visions for the Sunshine State little more than two weeks out from Election Day. 

The debate highlighted some of the most pressing issues for the state, including rising property insurance rates and what to do with Florida’s budget surplus. But it also spilled into the realm of national politics, with the two candidates staking out very different positions on issues such as abortion rights and immigration.

Here are five takeaways from Monday night’s showdown.

Crist comes out swinging

Crist wasted no time during Monday night’s debate in holding his opponent’s feet to the fire.

With the FiveThirtyEight polling average showing him running nearly 8 points behind DeSantis in a state known for ultra-close elections, Crist barreled into the debate with force, hammering the governor over everything from his focus on culture war issues such as abortion to his unwillingness to rule out a 2024 White House bid.

“He won’t even tell you if he’ll serve four years if reelected,” Crist said. “You deserve better than that. Florida deserves better than that.”

Of course, Crist isn’t new to debates. After all, he ran successfully for Florida governor as a Republican in 2006 and has made a couple of runs for statewide office since then. 

Still, his performance on Monday night was that of a candidate who recognized he needed a big moment to turn around his increasingly slim prospects in a state that has shifted quickly toward the GOP in recent years.

DeSantis fuels more 2024 chatter

It’s no secret that DeSantis is seen as a potential 2024 Republican presidential nominee. 

And on Monday, he did little to dispel such chatter. Throughout the debate, Crist questioned DeSantis about his future political prospects, pressing him on whether he would commit to serving out another four-year term in the governor’s mansion.

“You’re running for governor,” Crist said. “And I have a question for you. … Why don’t you look at the eyes of the people of Florida you will serve all four years?” 

“Will you serve a full four year term?” he asked.

DeSantis repeatedly refused to answer those questions, instead pivoting to the Biden administration and Crist’s record in Congress. 

Of course, the candidates weren’t permitted to ask each other questions. Still, DeSantis’s silence on the matter is likely to raise further questions about his future political ambitions.

DeSantis seizes on President Biden, inflation

For DeSantis, the Monday debate didn’t do much to surface new positions or talking points. The conservative Florida governor largely stuck to the same lines of attack, going after the Biden administration and reminding voters that the nation is dealing with the highest inflation in decades.

Even in opening the debate, DeSantis was quick to accuse Crist of voting “with Joe Biden 100 percent of the time” and blaming “Biden-Crist” policies for the ever-increasing cost of living.

It’s a familiar strategy for DeSantis, who has built a national reputation as one of Biden’s chief Republican antagonists. 

And there’s reason to believe that it will pay off. Biden lost Florida in 2020 by an unusually large margin for the Sunshine State and still holds an underwater approval rating there. DeSantis, meanwhile, has an above-water approval rating and has a reputation among Republicans as a conservative bulwark against a Democratically controlled Washington.

Abortion, immigration are flashpoints

Florida’s population has swelled in recent years as out-of-staters have poured into the Sunshine State. It’s no wonder, then, that national political issues dominated the conversation in Monday night’s debate just as much as state-specific issues did.

Crist, seizing on Democrats’ 2022 playbook, repeatedly reminded the audience that conservatives have worked for years to dismantle protections for abortion rights, warning that DeSantis and the state’s GOP-controlled legislature would impose further restrictions if given the chance.

DeSantis, meanwhile, accused Crist of being an accomplice to illegal immigration, tying the former congressman to the Biden administraiton’s “open border” policies.

One central topic in the debate was DeSantis’s decision to use state funds to fly dozens of migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, the elite Massachusetts resort town. Crist accused DeSantis of playing with people’s lives for political gain, while DeSantis said he succeeded in putting the country’s migrant crisis “front and center.”

Democrats still face an uphill climb

Crist held his own against DeSantis throughout the debate, keeping his focus on the governor’s record in office and pressing him over some of his most controversial decisions.

Whether that will be enough to alter the course of the Florida gubernatorial race remains an open question.

Public polling has repeatedly shown DeSantis as the favorite to win reelection, and the Florida governor has a loyal base of conservative support that he’s relying on to push him to victory on Election Day.

At the same time, he’s cast himself as the person best suited to tackle towering inflation and economic uncertainty, despite the rapid rise in the cost of living in the Sunshine State. That could help earn the support of moderates who are eager for financial relief.

All told, Crist needed more than just a good night on Monday to turn things around for his campaign; he needed a game changer.

It’s not clear he actually got what he was after.

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