Florida gubernatorial candidates Andrew Gillum and Ron DeSantis have exchanged sharp personal barbs in a searing second — and final — debate before voters take to the polls next month to determine which candidate will lead their state for the next four years.
The pair dragged one another through the mud on the debate stage at Broward College in Davie, Florida, where they were asked to describe their plan for the state on issues ranging from the environment, immigration, healthcare, and education.
But, they repeatedly returned to personal attacks in the process, suggesting the race has turned into an all out brawl as the candidates enter the home stretch of an election that has drawn national attention as something of a proxy to larger political headwinds in America.
“We have seen the collapsing of our political discourse,” Mr Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, said early in the debate when asked about a string of pipe bombs that had been sent to the offices and homes of Democratic leaders across the country on Wednesday. “My opponent, endorsed by him, has run this race very, very close to the Trump handbook, where we call each other names, where we run false advertisements”.
Mr DeSantis, a former US congressman with the backing of President Donald Trump, repeatedly resurfaced allegations against Mr Gillum that have plagued his candidacy, referencing text messages that were recently revealed showing the Tallahassee governor communicating about receiving tickets to the play Hamilton that were provided by an undercover FBI agent.
“He wants you believe that he’s not under investigation,” Mr DeSantis said. “Why would an undercover FBI agent posing as a contractor give you a ticket to Hamilton?”
The Democrat has repeatedly insisted that he has been told he is not the subject of an FBI investigation, but recognised that his handling of the situation has led to problems. There is no indication that the FBI is investigating Mr Gillum over corruption or bribery charges.
“I take responsibility for not having asked more questions,” Mr Gillum said during the debate, noting that he was under the impression that his brother had returned the favour for the Hamilton tickets by giving Beyoncé and Jay-Z tickets to the individual they received the play tickets from. “But let me tell you, I’m running for governor. In the state of Florida we have many issues. And tickets to Hamilton ain’t one of them.”
The debate took turns into the bizarre at times as the candidates sought to convey the urgency of the question posed before Florida voters.
While discussing sanctuary city policies, for instance, Mr DeSantis said that his opponent would allow those zones to flourish and that it would mean undocumented immigrant child molesters would be allowed to return to the streets after prison and “that child molester will reoffend and someone's mother or daughter will pay the price”. Mr Gillum countered that any suggestion that a violent criminal like that would be allowed back onto American streets instead of being deported was ridiculous.
The two also spared on healthcare policy, with both promising to protect Americans with pre-existing conditions. At that time Mr Gillum attacked Mr DeSantis who voted during his time in Congress for legislation that would have undercut protections for pre-existing conditions, on his record in Washington. Mr Gillum also promised to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act for as many as 800,000 Floridians.
During a particularly heated moment, Mr DeSantis snapped when asked by the debate moderator about David Horowitz, the right wing commenter known for racist remarks whose political conferences the former congressman has spoken at on at least four occasions.
“How in the hell am I supposed to know every statement that somebody makes,” Mr DeSantis snapped, eliciting gasps from the audience. “I’m not going to bow down to the altar of political correctness. I’m not going to let the media smear me.”
“My grandmother used to say a hit dog will holler and it hollered through this room”, Mr Gillum said in response.
He later followed up on the sentiment: “I'm not calling Mr DeSantis a racist. I'm simply saying the racists consider him a racist”.
The race between the two brawlers has drawn the attention from political commentators and onlookers from across the nation, and has come to be seen as something of a proxy for the state of American politics — a progressive Democrat who would be the state’s first black governor running against a US military veteran who has been one of the staunchest supporters of Mr Trump.
Mr Gillum would also be the first democrat elected to lead Florida in the 21st Century, with the last member of the party leading from Tallahassee leaving office in 1999. He leads in averages of polls by 5.8 points, according to an figure compiled by Real Clear Politics.