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Five things to watch as DeSantis, Crist debate in Florida

Associated Press/Rebecca Blackwell

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and his Democratic rival, former Rep. Charlie Crist (Fla.), are set to face off on Monday in their first and only debate of the state’s 2022 race for governor. 

While DeSantis has emerged as one of the most divisive Republicans in the country, recent polling suggests that he’s got a solid path to reelection. For Crist, the debate will be one of his last chances to turn things around before Election Day. 

Here are five things to watch in Florida’s gubernatorial debate: 

Will there be fireworks? 

While DeSantis’s campaign has been more than happy to slam Crist over the airwaves, the governor himself has rarely mentioned his Democratic rival on the stump. 

Contrast that with Crist, who has frequently attacked DeSantis during campaign events in hopes of making the race a referendum on the governor’s time in office — a nearly four-year period marked by intense political fights that have helped DeSantis endear himself to conservatives nationwide. 

The question is what route the two candidates choose to take on Monday night.  

Crist seems almost certain to go on the attack in hopes of undermining DeSantis’s efforts to tout his record in the governor’s mansion. If DeSantis chooses to fire back and go after Crist directly, it could lead to a debate stage blowout between two of Florida’s political heavyweights. 

Does DeSantis make a 2024 pitch? 

Over the past two-and-a-half years, DeSantis has been mentioned with increasing frequency as a prospective candidate for the GOP’s 2024 presidential nomination, and polling routinely shows him as the runner-up to former President Trump.  

While the debate is expected to focus more on Florida-specific issues, the high-profile nature of the gubernatorial race could give DeSantis a platform to make his case for a potential 2024 run.  

Of course, don’t expect him to address the matter directly. He’s repeatedly danced around the question, saying that for now, he’s focused solely on his reelection campaign.  

But Crist has accused DeSantis time and again of using his office to inch himself closer to a presidential bid, and if he makes that argument again on Monday night, it could put DeSantis on the spot. 

Still, Republicans say that DeSantis’s strongest argument for a White House run is his record as governor; he gained a loyal following of conservatives during the COVID-19 pandemic by repeatedly questioning and bucking the advice of public health officials, and he’s repeatedly inserted himself into some of the most politically charged moments of the past few years.  

Do DeSantis’s political stunts become a focal point? 

DeSantis is well-known for putting on a political show.  

When he suspended a Democratic Tampa-area elected state attorney in August, the announcement was teased by his spokesperson as “the liberal media meltdown of the year.” And just last month the Florida governor found himself at the center of a media firestorm after his administration flew dozens of migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. 

And those are just two of many notable moments that have defined DeSantis’s tumultuous tenure in the governor’s mansion.  

It may be tempting for Crist to highlight some of those debacles and remind Florida voters that another four years of DeSantis could mean another four years of political stunts and controversies. 

On the other hand, DeSantis’s approval rating remains above water, and there are signs that many Florida voters aren’t all too concerned with the controversies. A new Telemundo-LX News poll released on Monday found that 50 percent of Hispanic voters in Florida side with DeSantis on the migrant flights to Martha’s Vineyard, while 43 percent are opposed. 

Do attacks center on Biden and Trump?  

It’s almost a given that DeSantis will use the debate to continue his criticism of the Biden administration; that line of attack has been a mainstay of the governor’s reelection campaign from the beginning. And that’s not to mention that Biden is set to campaign with Crist in South Florida early next month. 

It’s less clear how Trump could factor into the debate. While Democrats have continued to point to the former president as a threat to democracy throughout their midterm campaigns, Crist has chosen to focus primarily on DeSantis. 

That appears to be by design. Trump may draw visceral responses from both Republicans and Democrats, but it’s also worth noting that he carried Florida in two consecutive presidential elections — first in 2016 and again in 2020 by an even bigger margin.  

Going on the attack against the former president could prove at least somewhat unpopular in a state that has in many ways come to epitomize Trump’s influence on Republican politics. Still, Crist is trailing DeSantis in most polls and going after Trump could help him rally Democratic base voters at a critical moment in his campaign. 

Does Crist have a game-changing performance? 

With DeSantis leading Crist by nearly 8 percentage points in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average of the race, it would appear as if Crist is in serious trouble. 

So there’s little doubt that he’s looking to have a standout performance on Monday night that could help shift — or at least ease — the political winds that have been blowing against Crist for months. 

What, exactly, such a performance would look like remains an open question. But there’s no shortage of talking points for Crist, if the past offers any hints about how Monday night could unfold. 

He’s hammered DeSantis relentlessly over abortion rights, warning that if DeSantis wins a second term in the governor’s mansion, he’s likely to try to further restrict the procedure beyond the current 15-week ban. 

Crist has also sought to place blame on DeSantis for the state’s rising cost of living and worsening property insurance crisis — an issue that could carry particular resonance in the wake of Hurricane Ian, which tore through Florida last month. 

Tags 2024 presidential race Charlie Crist Charlie Crist Florida governor's debate Florida governor's race midterms 2022 Ron DeSantis Ron DeSantis Ron DeSantis
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