TAMPA, Fla. ― The All-Donald Trump primary election strategy of Ron DeSantis, the Republican nominee for Florida governor, came home to roost Sunday in his first debate against Democrat Andrew Gillum, when the former congressman was asked whether the president was a good role model for children.
In his reply, DeSantis wound through a circuitous story about Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
Gillum acted perplexed and laughingly asked moderator Jake Tapper to repeat the question before answering: “No, he’s not. Donald Trump ― Donald Trump is weak. 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.”
A few minutes later, Gillum called DeSantis Trump’s “stooge” who wanted to “worship at the feet of Donald Trump.”
Trump, whom Gillum has said should be impeached for obstruction of justice, was just one of several flash points between the candidates. DeSantis has based his campaign on attacking the Tallahassee mayor, and he continued that approach during CNN’s nationally televised debate.
“Look, Andrew’s a failed mayor,” DeSantis said in his opening statement. “He’s presided over a crime-ridden city. He’s involved in corruption. He’s not the guy to lead our state.”
He later elaborated on the corruption charge, pointing to the active FBI investigation into interactions between the Tallahassee city government and a lobbyist who is a longtime friend of Gillum. Gillum said he is not a target of the probe. He demanded that DeSantis release records detailing $145,000 worth of congressional travel, much of which a Florida newspaper reported had gone toward taking DeSantis to New York and back so he could appear on Fox News.
Gillum also accused DeSantis of making openly racist attacks, particularly when he said Gillum would “monkey-up” the economic success Florida enjoyed under Gov. Rick Scott (R).
“The ‘monkey-up’ comment said it all,” Gillum said, adding that DeSantis had “taken every opportunity” to point out Gillum’s skin color.
“You know what? I’m black,” he said. “I’ve been black all my life. So far as I know, I will die black.”
The 60-minute debate was the first showdown between the two men ― they had never met before Sunday night ― since winning their respective primaries in late August. An earlier debate was cancelled because of Hurricane Michael, which struck the Panhandle near Tallahassee on Oct. 10 and kept Gillum off the campaign trail for 10 days.
The evening also provided a dramatic example of how gun politics have changed in the state since a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland earlier this year. The massacre led to restrictions on gun purchases that passed a Republican state legislature and were signed into law by Scott.
When asked why he had opposed that legislation, DeSantis said the shooting had deeply affected him. “We’re going to fix it when it comes to school security,” he said.
Gillum responded sharply: “The congressman was against the piece of legislation because he is wholly owned by the NRA,” he said, blaming that connection for the attack ads the National Rifle Association is running against him.
“They want the man that they bought,” Gillum said.
Democratic candidates for statewide office in previous elections have believed that they could not win if they crossed the NRA, one of the most powerful interest groups in Tallahassee. Yet every Democrat running during the primary campaign hammered the NRA and called for tighter gun regulations, with polling suggesting that Florida as a whole may be receptive to such laws.
Neither Gillum nor DeSantis has held statewide office before, and neither had much name recognition in the state outside their respective communities.
Gillum, though, had the support of national progressive groups that coalesced around him and helped him turn out liberal voters all over the state. As the first African-American major-party gubernatorial nominee in Florida, Gillum also had the support of a majority of black voters, who make up one-third of the state’s Democratic primary electorate.
DeSantis, meanwhile, has regularly defended Trump on Fox News in recent years ― something he was able to parlay into an endorsement before he even officially entered the race.
Neither the activist base of the state’s Democratic Party nor Trump-supporting Republicans, however, are numerous enough to win the governor’s race. That could put the election in the hands of the nearly one-third of the state’s voters who are not registered with a party, as well as with less-engaged Democrats and Republicans who typically do not vote in primaries and often not in midterms.
Early voting in Florida starts Monday. Gillum will be appearing with former Vice President Joe Biden and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson at rallies in Tampa and Jacksonville on Monday and Orlando on Tuesday to mark the event. Nelson is seeking a fourth term, but is facing a tough challenge from Scott, who must leave the governor’s mansion because of term limits.