Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) dodged questions about a potential presidential run and abortion restrictions at his first and only debate Monday with Democratic challenger Charlie Crist, in a race where DeSantis’s national ambitions have loomed.
While DeSantis has built a national profile leaning into some of the country’s most divisive social issues, he has been vague about his position on one fiercely debated topic: abortion restrictions. Asked Monday to specify at what point in pregnancy that abortion should be banned, DeSantis said he was “proud” of Florida’s existing ban on the procedure after 15 weeks but did not endorse anything more restrictive, underscoring many Republicans’ hesitance to push for the toughest bans in a state that has become a haven for abortion access in the South.
Crist, a former Republican governor of Florida who switched parties and most recently served in Congress as a Democrat, has sought to attack DeSantis on abortion as well as his ambitions beyond Florida. On Monday, Crist continued to pitch himself as a moderate who wants to “bring the state back together and not have a divider as a governor” and avoid “all these cultural and political wars that Ron loves.”
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DeSantis touted Florida’s economy under his leadership and his decision to lift coronavirus restrictions earlier than many other governors, saying that when the pandemic hit, he “led based on facts not based on fear” and eschewed shutdowns. Echoing speeches he has made around the country this fall while stumping for other GOP candidates, DeSantis said he “took a lot of flak” for decisions that saved jobs. “I took the arrows so you wouldn’t have to,” he said.
DeSantis also doubled down on some of his most divisive policy fights. Defending his opposition to gender-affirming care for minors and legislation he championed that restricted discussion of gender identity in schools, he likened the treatments to “genital mutilation.” “It’s inappropriate to tell an 8-year-old that they may have been born a girl but maybe they’re really a boy,” he said.
His statements echoed a memo Florida’s surgeon general released in April that advised physicians against prescribing puberty blockers or hormone therapy for transgender youths and said social gender transition — a nonmedical process in which a person uses a name, pronouns or clothing that matches their gender identity — should “not be a treatment option for children or adolescents.” The memo contradicted guidance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the country’s largest medical organizations.
DeSantis’s dodge on 2024 comes amid a campaign season during which he has spent time building his profile outside the state. His political operation has broken records for a gubernatorial race, with more than $177 million raised through early September. He has been cultivating relationships with donors nationwide and appearing with GOP candidates in swing states.
He also drew national attention and criticism last month for flying undocumented immigrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, a liberal enclave off the coast of Massachusetts. Crist and other Democrats condemned it as a cruel stunt, while Republicans cheered it as a protest of the Biden administration’s border policy.
At Monday’s debate, Crist said “we need to secure the border” and accused DeSantis of using the issue for political gain.
“You want to have it as a wedge issue,” he said, “and you want to pull political stunts like you did with the taxpayers’ dollars of the people of Florida.”
DeSantis criticized Biden on immigration and said the border was “in much better shape in January 2021,” when the president took office.
U.S. immigration arrests along the southern border topped 2 million in a year for the first time, according to figures released by the Biden administration last month. Republicans as well as some border-state Democrats have criticized the federal government’s approach.
Throughout the debate, Crist suggested DeSantis was eager to take on Biden. “Ron, you talk about Joe Biden a lot,” he said. “I understand. You think you’re gonna be running against him. I can see how you might get confused.” He asked DeSantis to “look in the eyes of the people of the state of Florida” and say whether he would serve a full four-year term if reelected.
“He won’t tell you,” said Crist, who has framed his race as “Democrats’ last chance to stop” DeSantis before he seeks national office.
DeSantis hesitated for a moment before the moderator cut in to say: “We did not agree on the candidates asking each other [questions].” The governor then said Crist was the one interested in discussing 2024 and called him an “old donkey” before moving on to taxes, saying he decreased them in Florida while Crist has signed off on raising them.
“Ron, we know you love to bully people, and the little name calling you just exchanged, I can take it,” Crist replied.
DeSantis and Crist also sparred over DeSantis’s response to Hurricane Ian, which killed more than 100 people and was especially deadly in Lee County, where some say officials should have evacuated earlier. “Whether it comes to covid or it comes to the hurricane, Ron ignored science. … He thinks he knows better than everybody,” Crist said.
DeSantis defended his response and the evacuations and said, “I stand by every one of our local counties. … They made the best decisions they could with the information they had.” He also noted the state’s swift restoration of access to islands cut off by the storm.
When the hurricane wiped out bridges, he said, “people thought those islands were going to be severed from the mainland for six months to a year.” One island was reconnected in a few days, he said.
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