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Face off: Bill Nelson and Rick Scott trade shots in first debate

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican challenger Rick Scott met face-to-face Tuesday for the first debate in their U.S. Senate race.

Both candidates came armed with clear-cut messages they hammered throughout the discussion. Scott accused Nelson of failing to get anything done during his long tenure in Washington. And Nelson repeatedly framed Scott’s statements as untrue, arguing the election is about integrity.

The candidates met at the studios of Telemundo 51 in Miramar for the taping, which will air Tuesday night at 7 p.m. The debate was moderated by Jackie Nespral of NBC6 and Marilys Llanos of Telemundo 51.

Candidates were given 90 seconds to answer each question, and the first candidate to answer was offered 30 seconds for a rebuttal. No time was allotted for an opening statement, leaving the moderators to jump right in with questions.

The first topic was immigration, where Nelson called for a comprehensive immigration reform plan. He also hit Gov. Scott over the child separations which have occurred under the Donald Trump administration.

“While that was happening, my opponent was silent,” Nelson said of those separations.

That’s not exactly true, as Scott did say back in June he does not support families being separated. However, Scott blamed the problem on the failure to “secure our borders,” rather than on the Trump administration’s actions.

Scott also used the topic to begin his attacks on Nelson’s alleged inaction as a lawmaker, saying “My opponent has had 40 years to do something on immigration and he has absolutely done nothing.”

However, as Nelson noted, he and the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill back in 2013. That bill later died in the House.

But Scott followed up on those attacks by saying Nelson should have advanced legislation to stop the separation of immigrant families. Trump eventually attempted to reverse course on the policy, though larger bills to address the immigration system failed.

Nelson battled back against Scott’s accusations by noting a finding by Politifact that nine out of nine Rick Scott ads reviewed by the organization contained falsehoods.

“He tries to distract,” said Nelson. Scott responded by asserting Politifact was an “arm of the Tampa Bay Times” and was a de facto part of the Democratic Party.

The topic then turned toward gun reform. Nelson referenced Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed during February’s mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School. Guttenberg was in the audience for Tuesday’s debate.

“I hope that you will look Fred in the face and tell him that you are not going to support those kinds of policies that you have with the NRA,” Nelson said to Scott.

The Governor said that while he feels for the victims of mass shootings, “I believe in the 2nd Amendment. I believe in the 1st Amendment. I believe in all the Amendments in the Bill of Rights.”

Scott did point to the bill Florida passed following the Parkland shooting, and once again accused Nelson of inaction at the federal level.

Candidates were then asked how they would increase economic security for Floridians. Nelson claimed an increase in the minimum wage law is necessary.

“Raise the minimum wage to $12 at least, if not $15, to raise the income level so people can pay for the necessities of life and feed their families.”

Scott shot back, saying “I think this is an example of why we need term limits.” He argued Nelson’s support of tax raises and increased regulation would hurt employers’ ability to hire more workers.

The two traded similar barbs over health care and the red tide crisis. Scott bashed Nelson for not solving these issues during his time in the Senate, arguing the Affordable Care Act did not live up to its promises.

Meanwhile, Nelson hit Scott over rejecting Medicaid expansion for Florida and cutting the state budget to combat the red tide problem.

“This election is about integrity and trust,” Nelson argued.

Scott was also challenged on his efforts to distance himself from President Trump after Trump called into question the death toll in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.

When asked by the moderators whether he was simply attempting to recruit the votes of Puerto Ricans who have fled to Florida, Scott said, “I don’t think about politics that way. I think about how you help families.”

Scott then talked about his various trips to the island and efforts to work with Gov. Ricardo Rossello throughout the storm and its aftermath.

That’s when Nelson reminded Scott that Rossello endorsed Nelson’s campaign on Monday, though Rossello did call it a tough decision.

Nelson also hammered Scott over saying “I don’t know what I’d do differently” than the federal government following the storm. The latest estimates put the death toll in Puerto Rico at close to 3,000 people.

Scott’s strongest line of attack was arguably regarding Nelson’s unsubstantiated claims of Russian interference in Florida’s election systems.

“I don’t know what his plan was,” Scott said of Nelson’s claims.

“Did he want to make people uncomfortable?”

When given the chance, Nelson dodged directly answering Scott’s questioning over the assertions of interference, which Scott made sure to note for the audience.

The final topic of the night was the Governor’s race between Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis. Scott reiterated his support for DeSantis and attempted to tie Nelson to the Democratic candidate.

“Sen. Nelson and Andrew Gillum will kill the economy,” Scott argued.

That’s when Nelson once again returned fire over Scott’s alleged falsehoods, saying, “Apparently you never got your mouth washed out with soap after telling a lie.”

Nelson asserted that voters’ reaction to Scott’s tenure as Governor will drive Gillum to victory in the race.

It’s hard to say whether the back-and-forth will push either candidate into a comfortable lead. Polls have shown the race as a close contest. While Scott held the lead in most surveys throughout the summer, Nelson has been ahead in more recent polls.

The next debate between the two will be aired on CNN on Oct. 16. That discussion will be moderated by Wolf Blitzer.

Written By

Ryan Nicol covers news out of South Florida for Florida Politics. Ryan is a native Floridian who attended undergrad at Nova Southeastern University before moving on to law school at Florida State. After graduating with a law degree he moved into the news industry, working in TV News as a writer and producer, along with some freelance writing work. If you'd like to contact him, send an email to

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