In testy debate, DeSantis and Crist battle over abortion, the classroom and 2024 presidential aspirations

In testy debate, DeSantis and Crist battle over abortion, the classroom and 2024 presidential aspirations

Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist tried repeatedly during Monday night’s gubernatorial debate with Gov. Ron DeSantis to portray his Republican rival as more interested in a 2024 run for president than in serving a second term in the Sunshine State.

“Why don't you look in the eyes of the people in the state of Florida and say to them if you’re reelected you will serve a full four-year term as governor,” Crist, the former Republican turned Democrat, said during the debate held in Fort Pierce. “Yes or no, would you serve a full, four-year term if you’re reelected governor of Florida?”

DeSantis paused for effect, then launched his counterattack. “I know that Charlie’s talking about Joe Biden and 2024, but I want to make things very, very clear: The only worn-out old donkey I’m looking to put out to pasture is Charlie,” he responded.

With just two weeks left before Election Day, early voting already underway and polls showing Crist trailing DeSantis by 8 percentage points in a polling average compiled by 538, the lone debate between the candidates seemed unlikely to change the trajectory of the race.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis debates Charlie Crist, a Democratic former governor, Oct. 24. (Crystal Vander Weiter/Pool via Reuters)

Crist has trailed DeSantis throughout the race by sizable margins in most public polling. And despite being a former governor of Florida himself, Crist has struggled to gain traction. Last week, his campaign manager was arrested on domestic violence charges the day before he announced he was resigning his position. DeSantis has also been walloping Crist in the money race by more than 20:1.

But Monday’s debate gave Crist an opportunity to try to break through with voters, and he used it to try to appeal to female voters, repeatedly returning to the subject of abortion rights. He accused DeSantis of trying to distract from abortion to find more favorable topics for himself.

“You’re talking about all these other issues because you don’t want to talk about taking away a woman’s right to choose,” Crist said to DeSantis.

DeSantis, meanwhile, used the debate to focus on economic and cultural issues, the latter of which tend to animate the GOP base that will decide the next nominee in 2024.

He blasted transgender athletes as “men” competing in “women’s sports” and said that gender reassignment surgery was the result of confused children and families.

“A lot of kids go through a lot of different things. A lot of dysphoria resolves itself by the time they become adults, and we have a number of people that have spoken out in favor of what we’re doing to say you should not mutilate minors, and they went through this when they were minors. Now they’re adults and they regret it,” DeSantis said.

Democratic challenger Charlie Crist
Crist debating DeSantis on Monday night. The Democratic former governor is hoping his performance will boost his standing in the polls. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

Throughout the debate, DeSantis, who has regularly been ranked as the strongest potential Republican challenger to former President Donald Trump in a hypothetical primary field, stuck close to issues that animate the far-right, including accusations that public schools are teaching white children to be ashamed of their race and calling gender reassignment surgery for children “genital mutilation”.

In April, DeSantis signed a controversial bill into law that bans the teaching of so-called critical race theory in public schools, and on Monday he defended it.

“If you look around the country, you do have programs, unfortunately, where they will take a student, look at their race and say, ‘OK, you’re white. You’re an oppressor. If you’re Black, you’re oppressed,’” DeSantis said to jeers from the audience. “And think about what that does to a 6- or 7-year-old kid. That’s wrong and you’re seeing that. You have people that are teaching — and his [Crist’s] running mate has said this in the past, teaching the United States was built on stolen land. That is inappropriate for our schools. It’s not true and I’m happy that we’re going to be able to have accurate history.”

Ron DeSantis debates Charlie Crist
The DeSantis-Crist debate in Fort Pierce, Fla., on Monday night. (Crystal Vander Weiter/Pool via Reuters)

Crist countered that the law DeSantis signed was itself guilty of politicizing history.

“There’s an expression those who don’t know history may be condemned to repeat it. Usually people use that in reference to the Holocaust, it can just as easily be in reference to slavery in our country. It happened. It’s a fact,” Crist said. “We shouldn’t have a whitewash approach to educating our children, that’s not right. How are they going to do well in life if they don’t even know our own history?”

As the debate came to a close, it was clear that DeSantis may indeed still cruise to victory in the Florida governor’s race, but his answers also did little to quell speculation that he may mount a White House bid in 2024.

“He wouldn’t answer you if he would serve four years if he is reelected governor,” Crist said in his closing remarks.