Gloves come off as Gillum, DeSantis enter final days of Florida race

DAVIE, Fla. – The race for governor in Florida has morphed into an all-out brawl between dueling sides of the political spectrum as race-related controversies and allegations of corruption enter the fray.

A ferocious debate between Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisGillum launches voter-registration campaign Republicans need solutions on environment too Republicans up for reelection fear daylight with Trump MORE on Wednesday underscored just how contentious — and personal — the gubernatorial race has become in the final stretch of the midterm elections.

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It also highlighted the candidates’ more glaring vulnerabilities. DeSantis, a former congressman and staunch ally of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate GOP budget ignores Trump, cuts defense Trump says he'll nominate Stephen Moore to Fed White House: ISIS territory in Syria has been 100 percent eliminated MORE, was forced to confront a series of race-related controversies that have haunted his campaign since the day after Florida’s August primaries.

Meanwhile, Gillum, the unabashedly progressive mayor of Tallahassee, is facing questions about a federal investigation into suspected corruption in his city hall, as well as records showing he accepted a ticket to the musical “Hamilton” from an undercover FBI agent who he believed was a local developer.

It is a tenor that is seen as unlikely to change in the final days of the contest, even as a slew of explosive devices mailed to prominent Democrats, CNN and critics of President Trump have raised concerns about the political divisions in the country.

The race is among the most closely watched in the country, seen by many political observers as a sort of proxy war between Trump’s Republican Party and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

Gillum has carried a slim lead in nearly every public poll in the race to replace term-limited Gov. Rick Scott (R).

But Republicans are outpacing Democrats in early voting in Florida, suggesting that the state’s conservative base may be energized.

The race is rated as a "toss-up" by nonpartisan The Cook Political Report.

Both Gillum and DeSantis went on the attack since the debate as each candidate looks to turn out their respective bases. 

"He collapsed under the pressure of being asked about some of the racist conferences he attended," Gillum said of DeSantis at a rally on Thursday.

He also accused the former congressman of having "facilitated a Facebook group that was anti-Semitic," trying to create an issue after DeSantis was included in a group that posted racist messages, which DeSantis said he did not know about.

DeSantis’s allies have raced to defend the former congressman against insinuations that he has aligned himself with white supremacists after Road to Power, an Idaho-based white supremacist group, has launched a round of racist robocalls impersonating Gillum with a minstrel-style dialect. 

DeSantis's campaign has strongly denied any involvement and disavowed the calls.

Rep. Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzTrump: I told Republicans to vote for 'transparency' in releasing Mueller report House votes for Mueller report to be made public Matt Gaetz jabs Don Lemon while talking to Chris Cuomo on CNN MORE (R-Fla.), a close ally of DeSantis, said that Gillum was “playing the race card, because he’s been proven to be a liar.”

“When you’re caught lying — when you don’t tell the truth — then you got to resort to desperate tactics,” Gaetz told reporters Wednesday after the debate.

“Here I expect from now until the end of this campaign, Andrew Gillum will have to play the race card, because the people of this state can’t trust him."

DeSantis isn’t the only one on the defensive.

Gillum is facing attacks after records made public this week included text messages showing that Gillum received "Hamilton" tickets from “Mike Miller,” who was really an undercover agent.

The records appeared to contradict Gillum’s past assertions that he believed the ticket came from his brother.

At the same time, email records released Tuesday by the lawyer of Adam Corey, a lobbyist and longtime friend of Gillum who has become a central figure in the FBI corruption probe, suggested that Gillum never reimbursed Corey in full for a trip to Costa Rica last year.

The Tallahassee mayor has insisted that he paid his fair share for that vacation.

DeSantis’s running mate, Jeanette Nuñez, said that Gillum should have known better than to take the “Hamilton” ticket from someone he believed to be a developer, adding that the revelation should raise larger concerns about the Tallahassee mayor’s character.

“He knows better. He’s been a career politician. He’s someone that knows the laws of Florida,” Nuñez told reporters after the debate on Wednesday.

“And I can tell you, accepting those tickets should really concern voters, because there’s an underlying lack of ethics and certainly a lot of corruption in the City of Tallahassee.”

The increasingly toxic rhetoric Florida’s gubernatorial race comes amid a widening division in U.S. politics. A Democratic base, incensed by Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress, is expected to power the party into a so-called blue wave in the House in November.

On the other side, Republicans have sought to rally their conservative base around the notion that Democratic wins would pose an existential threat to Trump’s presidency and his work in office – an argument that the president himself has honed in on.

The two candidates couldn’t be more different. Gillum has spent much of his campaign building a personal narrative around his working-class upbringing and career in public service. Earlier this year, he won the endorsement of Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersDemocratic Socialists of America endorses Sanders for president Trump on 2020 Dems skipping AIPAC: 'I think they're anti-Jewish' The Hill's Morning Report — Washington readies for Mueller end game MORE (I-Vt.), who has emerged as a sort of patriarch for the progressive movement.

Meanwhile, DeSantis has tied himself closely with Trump, building much of his campaign message around a vow to work hand-in-hand with the White House as governor.

In an acknowledgement of the times, both candidates have still sought to appeal to a broader sense of bipartisanship.

In Wednesday’s debate, DeSantis recalled being present last year when House Majority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseTrump keeps tight grip on GOP GOP lawmakers: House leaders already jockeying for leadership contests House Republicans find silver lining in minority MORE (R-La.) was shot at a congressional baseball practice, warning that "when we start going down that road, that can be very, very deadly.”

Likewise, Gillum called for a cool-down in inflammatory rhetoric, warning that it was “dangerous for society.” He pointed to the series of explosive devices sent this week to showcase how political animosity had gone too far.

“Our leadership is going to have to become extremely, highly responsible with our rhetoric,” Gillum told reporters Thursday. “This rhetoric is becoming extremely heated. It is dangerous, not only for elected officials and their families — it’s dangerous for society.”