President Trump was not on stage in Florida, but he was big player in Sunday night’s contentious gubernatorial debate.
Former Republican congressman Ron DeSantis, whose endorsement by Trump propelled him to victory in the GOP primary, sought to make the case that his ties to the Trump administration better position him to work with the federal government than his Democratic opponent, Andrew Gillum, who has called for the president’s impeachment.
Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, said DeSantis is a “stooge” for Trump and called for a different tone in Florida than the president has set for the nation.
“In Trump’s America, we’ve been led to believe that we’ve got to step on our neighbor’s shoulder, in their face, in their backs in order to get ahead. Well, I reject that,” Gillum said near the close of the hour-long debate, which was broadcast live by CNN from Tampa.
Earlier, DeSantis deflected a question from moderator Jake Tapper of CNN about whether he considers Trump a good role model for children. DeSantis instead wound up talking about his approval of the administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
After DeSantis finished speaking, Gillum feigned confusion about the question, prompting Tapper to repeat it.
“Donald Trump is weak,” Gillum said. “And he performs as all weak people do: They become bullies, and Mr. DeSantis is his acolyte. He’s trying out to be the Trump apprentice at every turn. He’s tweeting at him, and he’s talking to him. He’s showing up. He’s complimenting him.”
Trump wasted little time in weighing in, writing on Twitter on Sunday night that DeSantis “had a great debate victory tonight against Andrew Gillum, a mayor who presides over one of the worst run, and most corrupt, cities in Florida.”
“Ron will build on the great job done by Governor Rick Scott,” Trump added, referring to the Republican incumbent who is seeking a U.S. Senate seat. “Gillum will make Florida the next Venezuela!”
DeSantis, who has been trailing in polls, made some of the same allegations in a pugnacious opening statement, calling Gillum a “failed mayor” who is pushing policies too liberal for Florida, including a “Medicare for all” health-care plan.
“He’s presided over a crime-ridden city,” DeSantis said. “He’s involved in corruption. He’s not the guy to lead our state.”
The county in which Tallahassee sits has the highest crime rate in Florida, but the numbers have improved during his tenure, Gillum argued.
There is an ongoing FBI investigation into public corruption in Tallahassee. Gillum has said repeatedly that the FBI informed him he is not a focus of the probe.
During Sunday night’s debate, the two candidates also sparred over their environmental credentials, with Gillum calling DeSantis “an election-year environmentalist” and DeSantis saying he has battle scars that prove he is willing to stand up to his party on the issue.
DeSantis also addressed accusations that he has sought to inject race into the campaign. The day after winning the GOP primary, DeSantis warned that a victory but Gillum — who would be Florida’s first black governor — could “monkey this up” for the state.
DeSantis strongly denied that his comment was about race, asserting that “Floridians can know that I’ll be a governor for all Floridians.”
Gillum offered a different take.
“He has only continued in the course of his campaign to draw all the attention he can to the color of my skin,” Gillum said. “The truth is, I’ve been black all of my life. So far as I know, I will die black.”