Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and his Democratic challenger, Charlie Crist, met for their only scheduled debate on Monday, the first day of early voting across the state.
One of the hot topics was whether DeSantis, who many believe will run for president in 2024, is paying more attention to getting his name known nationally than to the needs of Floridians. Recently, DeSantis flew Venezuelan migrants to Martha's Vineyard, a stunt that Crist called "inhumane." He pressed DeSantis to say whether he would finish his term if elected, and DeSantis would not answer the question. "His focus is not on Florida," Crist said.
Crist, who was a Republican governor of Florida before becoming a Democratic congressman, said he is the moderate voice Florida needs, while DeSantis played up his conservative credentials. DeSantis stated he is "proud" of Florida's 15-week ban on abortion, and is "defending the parents and students" by supporting the Parental Rights In Education law, which has been dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill by critics.
Crist pounced on DeSantis' handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, reminding the audience that 82,000 Floridians have died of the disease. DeSantis reopened schools and businesses too early, flouting science and the advice of public health experts, leading to Florida having "one of the highest death rates in America," Crist said. "He called for harsh shutdowns," DeSantis replied. "It would have thrown millions of Floridians into turmoil."
Crist also accused DeSantis of not taking Hurricane Ian seriously; earlier this month, the storm devastated parts of South Florida and left at least 100 people dead. "Our message was, 'Listen to your locals,'" DeSantis responded. "It's ultimately a local decision. But I stand by every one of our local counties." Crist, he said, was in Puerto Rico and "wasn't helping his community."
The men found common ground on one topic: both said that Nikolas Cruz, the gunman who in 2018 killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, should have received the death penalty. Instead, he was sentenced earlier this month to life in prison. In Florida, a jury must vote unanimously for the death penalty, and DeSantis said he will "ask the Florida legislature to amend that statute so that one juror doesn't have veto power over appropriate punishment." (Three Cruz jurors voted against capital punishment.)
DeSantis won his first term in 2018 by just 32,000 votes out of 8.2 million cast. The Associated Press notes that Florida has made a rightward shift since then, and Republicans have a registration advantage of almost 300,000 voters.