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Gov. DeSantis won't directly say he'll serve full 2nd term

Democrat Charlie Crist, left, will challenge incumbent Republican Ron DeSantis in the Nov. 8 general election
Daylina Miller/WUSF Public Media; AP
Democrat Charlie Crist, left, will challenge incumbent Republican Ron DeSantis in the Nov. 8 general election

Defiant as ever, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis fiercely defended his response to the COVID-19 pandemic and his focus on divisive cultural issues in his first and only reelection debate Monday, as Democrat Charlie Crist accused his Republican rival of being distracted by his national political ambitions.

Crist charged that DeSantis was already focused on running for president and pressed his opponent to commit to serving his second full four-year term. DeSantis didn't directly answer the question.

“I know that Charlie is 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,” DeSantis said of his 66-year-old opponent.

“You won’t even say if you want to be the governor of Florida after this election,” Crist said.

The Florida governor’s race may not be the nation’s most competitive election this fall, but it is no less consequential for DeSantis, a 44-year-old Harvard-educated Republican who could launch a presidential bid in the coming months. He hopes to use a strong reelection victory on Nov. 8 in Florida, a state he carried by just 32,000 votes out of 8.2 million cast four years ago, to demonstrate the breadth and strength of his support.

Monday’s debate also offered voters in Florida and beyond a rare opportunity to see DeSantis under pressure. Like many leading GOP officials across the nation this fall, he has largely avoided unscripted moments in recent months save for periodic interviews with friendly conservative media.

DeSantis, a conservative firebrand, has delighted his supporters over and over with his extraordinary willingness to fight -- whether facing political adversaries, the federal government or powerful Florida businesses. Crist, a former Republican governor who most recently served as a Democratic congressman, has tried to cast himself as a moderate alternative to lead the perennial swing state.

The candidates, both in dark suits and purple ties, faced each other from behind wooden lecterns in Fort Pierce’s Sunrise Theater. And both men seemed to relish the fight during a testy one-hour affair.

Crist charged that DeSantis closed businesses and schools across the state early on during the pandemic and then ignored science by opening them too soon, leading to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

“You’re the only governor in the history of Florida that ever shut down our schools,” Crist said. “You’re the one who’s the shutdown guy.”

DeSantis lashed back: “I kept the state open and I kept the state free,” he said.

Over and over, DeSantis attacked Crist as a close ally Biden, who's popularity is sagging in Florida and across the nation. “Charlie Crist has voted with Joe Biden 100% of the time,” DeSantis said, referring to the Crist-Biden agenda.

DeSantis also defended his focus on divisive cultural issues, which have been a hallmark of his first term.

Crist repeatedly highlighted DeSantis' opposition to abortion rights, seizing on the law he signed in April banning abortions at 15 weeks of pregnancy, with no exceptions for rape or incest. DeSantis declined to answer a question from the moderator about whether he supports a complete abortion ban.

“You deserve a better governor who cares about freedom and your right to choose," Crist said.

DeSantis also defended a law he signed 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 when Crist accused him of using Hispanic immigrants as “political pawns," DeSantis defended his decision to fly 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.

“It’s all about culture wars. It’s all about dividing us,” Crist said of DeSantis.

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Steve Peoples and Anthony Izaguirre - Associated Press