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Governor's race in Florida expected to be wild and woolly

The field is set for Florida’s November 8 general election, and two political traditions — rancor and vitriol — are expected to gain strength in the race for governor.

“Tonight, the people of Florida clearly sent a message. They want a governor who cares about them to solve real problems — who preserves our freedom,” said Democratic nominee Charlie Crist on primary night. “Not a bully who divides us and takes our freedom away.”

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ responded soon afterward.

“What [political] party is he gonna run in this time? I mean as a Republican, independent, Democrat?” asked the governor. “You know, I looked up his voting with Nancy Pelosi 100% of the time in Congress. I thought, heck, maybe he gives the Green Party a chance. He's certainly voting that way.”

Historically, gubernatorial campaigns in Florida have been rowdy but Crist v. DeSantis has a feel of going beyond the normal rough-and-tumble.

“There's a great cartoon that shows the Democrat and Republican the elephant and the donkey pointed the finger at the other. And I think that's where we're at right now,” said Susan MacManus, a retired political scientist from the University of South Florida.

MacManus would know. She’s been to a few of these rodeos.

“Each side is using language to describe opponents, very negative language,” she said. “Each side is pointing the finger at the other. And sadly, why should we expect that we're going to see any kind of different race in the Governor's race that we're seeing in other races already?”

As is the case with all campaigns for elected office, the highest-octane fuel is money. According to the website followingthemoney.org, Governor Ron DeSantis has raised a total of $172 million while Crist has only pulled in about $15 million at last check, after spending most of his war chest in the primary. MacManus says that’s why DeSantis ads are all over television, while a Crist ad is a rarity to this point.

One ad from the DeSantis campaign shows various Floridians praising him and his actions.

“Yet again. You saved our jobs.”

“Kept us going. They tried to shut us down.”

Crist’s first post-primary ad goes after the incumbent, for both the November general election, and for 2024.

“[DeSantis] says he's all about freedom, but only if you do what he says,” said Crist in a recent rally. “His blind ambition for the presidency of the United States of America has taken his eye off the ball of this most beautiful state in the country, this most beautiful place to live. Live in the world.”

But does the candidate with the deepest pockets always win? MacManus says, not necessarily.

“I hearken back to [Michael] Bloomberg, who desperately lost in Florida but spent bucket loads of money a few years ago,” she said. “Nonetheless, DeSantis’ favorability ratings at the moment are higher than Crist’s. DeSantis has more money; the economy is still a top issue. That said, the polls are showing a very tight race.”

Aside from the sniping, one of the top issues is education — a topic that MacManus says DeSantis and Crist are offering two very different views.

“DeSantis got legislation through the legislature on parental rights. On the other side, Crist picks as his running mate [Karla Hernandez-Mats] the head of the teachers union for Miami Dade County, a must have county for him, and a Latina at that,” MacManus said. “And he certainly needs to break into that Latino vote down in South Florida.”

The other 800-pound gorilla in the room is the economy. Both, says MacManus, have to talk about it, being the top issue for the incumbent.

“He's running and counting on the fact that he kept the state open, that the economy is good here, that people are moving here, businesses moving here because of the fact that we were open,” she said.

If there is one issue that permeates campaigns nationwide this year, it’s the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs. Wade. Abortion rights have become a bedrock issue for Democratic candidates, including Charlie Crist, and a possible obstacle for Republicans, including Ron DeSantis.

“Every speech that [Crist] is giving,” says MacManus, “is stresses that Democrats are counting on abortion to take him to victory, to bring in younger voters, particularly younger women, and to bring over some of the suburban moms who voted for Trump to vote Democrat on that issue.”

But at this point, don’t look for the gubernatorial candidates to share a stage and debate their positions. DeSantis has refused to appear in a statewide TV debate with Crist. For the public, MacManus says that’s “kind of sad.”

“People love to see the candidates side-by-side. How they react to each other? Do they cut each other off? Do they answer the question? How much do they really know about a topic?, MacManus said. “And I think that's what's missing by simply relying upon websites and other sources other than broadcast television in a lot of markets.”

And in case you’re wondering, the governor’s race in Florida is not just Ron DeSantis and Charlie Crist. Also on the November 8 ballot will be Hector Roos, the Libertarian nominee, and independents Carmen Gimenez and Jodi Jeloudov, along with assorted write-ins.