For the final time in the campaign for Florida governor, Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum faced off on a debate stage in Davie Wednesday.
From the opening statements, it was a war, a reflection of two campaigns feeling the pressure of the closing stretch.
The two first debated on Sunday, a CNN clash seen by a national audience.
Soon after that debate, the narrative of the campaign changed in classic October Surprise fashion, when evidence emerged that the FBI gave Gillum a ticket to the musical Hamilton in New York City.
Conveniently, there is a parallel scandal of interest to the Democrats: DeSantis is withholding receipts for $145,000 in taxpayer-funded travel, which allowed him to do television hits among other things.
Both candidates, early and often, made the case that the other one was corrupt.
Another recurrent motif of this campaign — the candidates painting each other’s supporters as extreme — likewise recurred in this debate. DeSantis and Gillum returned to that theme throughout the debate.
And the candidates called each other liars, routinely, ensuring the campaign would stay ugly to the end.
DeSantis hammered Gillum for signing a Dream Defenders pledge, a signing that Gillum disclaimed but that DeSantis clearly sees as a wedge issue that reveals Gillum’s radicalism.
Discussion focused early on the impact of divisive rhetoric, such as that found in anti-Gillum robocalls (which DeSantis has called “disinformation … to distract from the core issues”), and the pipe bombs sent to Presidents Obama and Clinton and other leading figures on the left this week.
Gillum was blunt: “We’ve seen the collapsing of our political discourse.”
Gillum noted that DeSantis went on Fox News to warn voters not to “monkey this up” by rejecting him.
“My opponent has run close to the Trump handbook,” Gillum said.
Soon enough, DeSantis brought up the Dream Defenders pledge.
“This same group that he stands with and stands by [trashes] Israel,” DeSantis said.
Gillum disavowed that part of the platform.
“The pledge that I signed,” Gillum said, was a rejection of private prison money.
DeSantis, said Gillum, is “owned by them.”
DeSantis moved on quickly, trashing Gillum on the FBI Hamilton tickets issue.
Gillum reframed the narrative again.
“I did go and see Hamilton. I was aware that Adam Corey and Mike Miller arranged …. I should have asked more questions to make sure that everything that happened was above board.”
“I take responsibility for not having asked more questions,” Gillum said, adding that Florida’s “got 99 issues and Hamilton ain’t one of them.”
“I have zero tolerance for corruption,” Gillum said, contrasting himself to DeSantis.
“When Andrew’s dealing with the FBI, he’s dealing with them as a person of interest in an investigation,” DeSantis said, making the case that Gillum was lying even as the moderator told him time was up.
DeSantis was compelled, both by Gillum and the moderator, to explain how he defends President Donald Trump regarding his issues.
He was more comfortable trashing Gillum.
“Andrew was getting things he shouldn’t have gotten, and then they got a two million dollar contract from Tallahassee,” DeSantis said, urging Gillum to “waive all confidentiality” on the ethics investigation.
Gillum responded, trying to “deconstruct the lies” of DeSantis, saying the issues in front of Florida were being “obscured by this gentleman.”
“Why don’t you release your receipts, because I’ve released mine,” Gillum said, referring again to the invoices for taxpayer-funded travel.
Beyond the personal attacks, some policy was discussed. Though that too was in the punch/counterpunch vein.
Gillum had to clarify his policy regarding “sanctuary cities,” which Republicans have maintained he supports.
“We don’t put babies in cages and separate them from their mothers,” Gillum said, restating his position that Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s “mission has been diverted” in a way “inconsistent with the American way.”
“Andrew says there are no sanctuary cities in Florida, but that will change if he is Governor,” DeSantis said, reiterating his previous position that Gillum wouldn’t cooperate with the Trump Administration on an ICE detainment request.
Gillum protested, saying that “we’re not going to criminalize people because of their personhood,” condemning “racial profiling.”
“What he will not commit to,” DeSantis said, is handing even a child molester over to ICE.
“That child molester will reoffend, and someone’s son or daughter will pay the price,” DeSantis said to a mixture of cheers and jeers.
It is this emotional appeal, this constant drum beat that Gillum may be reckless, that drives the DeSantis campaign.
“You’re disqualified from the office of Governor,” Gillum said, umbraged by DeSantis’ lies.
The discussion went full circle, with DeSantis saying that Gillum was “apologizing because he got caught” regarding Hamilton. And Gillum wanting, again, the receipts for “junkets to New York to hang out with Faux News and Friends.”
“My receipts have been made public. Mr. DeSantis has so far refused to release those records,” Gillum said.
DeSantis also had to account for the comments of David Horowitz, the right-wing commentator whose conferences DeSantis delivered speeches at on four occasions.
“How in the hell am I supposed to know every statement that somebody makes,” DeSantis said to gasps. “I’m not going to bow down to the altar of political correctness. I’m not going to let the media smear me.”
“A hit dog will holler,” Gillum said.
“The conference I attended was not a racial conference, that is an absolute lie,” DeSantis said, pivoting to attacking the Dream Defenders again.
And so it went, the polemic much more interesting than the policy.
With two debates in the books, Gillum has held his own with the Ivy educated prosecutor DeSantis. He avoided completely capsizing from the Hamilton revelations.
Now, all that’s left to swing voters: messaging from the noise machines on each side.