The second and final debate between Republican gubernatorial hopefuls Adam Putnam and Ron DeSantis was Putnam’s best chance to showcase his unique value add in a race where momentum has gone his opponent’s way since the President endorsed him,
The debate in Jacksonville set up well: a friendly crowd, a local outlet determined to make the questions about “Florida issues,” and an absolute existential need to perform well and somehow bring the race, Trump factor notwithstanding, back into play.
Putnam had in recent days introduced attacks on DeSantis, saying he’s soft on Stand Your Ground and a “puppet” of the “open-borders” Koch Brothers. The avuncular persona replaced by that of a pitbull, reflective of a reality: after decades in politics, Putnam for once couldn’t make institutional ties translate with the voters.
“This election’s a choice between the Washington way and putting Florida first,” Putnam said, calling DeSantis the “Seinfeld candidate.”
“The campaign is being run out of a studio, they have a smattering of celebrity guest appearances, and it’s all about nothing. But, unlike Seinfeld, it’s not funny,” Putnam sniped.
That was the first of many trolls of DeSantis this evening, in what was a 60 minute aggressive performance from Putnam.
DeSantis made a subtle class war appeal in response, noting that his first job was for “six dollars an hour,” which is not a problem Putnam ever faced.
From there, policy. On school safety, DeSantis advocated school hardening, noting that “law abiding gun owners” were impacted by the school safety reform bill passed last Legislative Session, which he expects to be overturned.
“That bill on security side was a very good first step, but there’s more to do,” DeSantis said.
Putnam pivoted to “protecting our Second Amendment,” occupying the same space as DeSantis on that — then noting he, unlike DeSantis, backed the Sheriff in the Markeis McGlockton case.
DeSantis, in a frontrunner move, did not take Putnam’s bait.
JAXPORT dredging was next. Putnam noted support for it, and noted again that “the Florida way was different from the Washington way.”
DeSantis likewise backed state funding of dredging, noting that he’d pushed for funding dredging in Congress.
Economic incentives were up next, via Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida.
DeSantis backs using “whatever tools are there,” noting that “picking winners and losers” was not his preference.
Putnam, meanwhile, took the Rick Scott position of enthusiastic advocacy for economic incentives — “tools in the quiver” for the next governor.
Then, a jab at DeSantis, for invoking the water quality issue [“algae blooms”] in his Visit Florida response: “You can take everything my opponent knows about Florida water policy and write it on a sticky note, and you’ll still have room left for your grocery list.”
“Adam is basically the errand boy for U.S. Sugar,” DeSantis said. “They’ve pumped millions and millions of dollars into his campaign.”
Putnam tried to fire back later in the debate, but DeSantis hit the U.S. Sugar line again.
“They released their nutrient load by 70 percent,” Putnam said. “But you wouldn’t know.”
President Donald Trump was next up, with his endorsement of DeSantis called “the elephant in the room” by moderator Kent Justice.
Putnam noted a “different approach” between Trump’s campaign and DeSantis’ campaign: “He ran on a plan. You ran on an endorsement.”
“I wish he hadn’t put his thumb on the scale in Florida’s campaign,” Putnam said. “Having the Trump card is the only card you have. It’s a good one, but you’re not playing with a full deck.”
“You could have put [Putnam’s] picture on a milk carton during the 2016 campaign,” DeSantis fired back. “He’s a career politician … who will say or do anything to get elected.”
“You ran for three offices in three years, that’s a career politician with ADD,” Putnam jibed.
Special interest money came up, with Putnam noting that “90 percent of [his] campaign support has come from real Floridians,” with DeSantis’ money coming from “casino owners and pornographers” from as far away as California.
“It’s not just the direct contributions from Big Sugar, it’s the indirect … close to $10 million in this cycle alone,” DeSantis said. “I’ve had more negative ads run against me than every other candidate running for governor on either side, probably by a factor of five.”
The attack ads, said Putnam, “are true” — including the FairTax hit from July.
“That may sound good in D.C…. in a Harvard economics classroom, but it’s bad for Florida … for seniors,” including in Nocatee and the Villages.
DeSantis noted that both VP Mike Pence and the Florida Legislature in 2014 backed the proposal, and that the “lefties at Harvard would hate the FairTax.”
“If he’s willing to misrepresent something conservatives have supported for years, what makes you think as Governor he would tell you the truth,” DeSantis asked.
The two were able to agree on a couple of things: Medicaid expansion would have been bad for Florida. Both want, as Putnam said, a “patient-centered” model.
And both support charter schools, as laid out in HB 7069.
Expect Democrats to capitalize on that in the general election, no matter who comes out of the Republican side.