The final Rick Scott-Charlie Crist debate: Four takeaways

Democratic candidate Charlie Crist, left, and Republican Gov. Rick Scott wait for their live televised debate, Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014 hosted by WJXT-TV and CNN at the Channel 4 studios in Jacksonville.
Democratic candidate Charlie Crist, left, and Republican Gov. Rick Scott wait for their live televised debate, Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014 hosted by WJXT-TV and CNN at the Channel 4 studios in Jacksonville. AP

The final televised debate between Rick Scott and Charlie Crist was certainly entertaining, much as boxing matches or arguments between two adolescents can sometimes be amusing to watch. If, however, viewers of the hour-long CNN debate Tuesday night hoped it would make them more enthusiastic about their choice or help them decide, they probably wound up disappointed.

Four takeaways from the high-stakes, final debate in Florida’s tied race for governor.

1. Meet the Bickersons.

It hardly seems possible for these two candidates to emerge even less inspiring than they were already after so many millions of dollars in negative ads, but they managed it. Truly, they sounded like squabbling children through much of the debate.

“Charlie, I didn’t grow up with money like you did. You have plenty of money,” the governor worth perhaps $100 million sneered at one point.

“He talked about how do you know Charlie’s telling the truth. Well how do you know Rick’s telling the truth?,” the former governor said at another.

Would it really kill them to refer to each other with a token “Mr. Crist” or “Gov. Scott,” and at least pretend there is a modicum of dignity in campaigning to be governor of the nation’s third largest state?

This has turned into the ultimate hold-your-nose election, and Tuesday’s debate confirmed it. Neither man has much interest in telling voters what he wants to do over the next four years, preferring to focus on how lousy Florida fared under his opponent’s four years.

2. Scott, the Inartful Dodger.

For the better part of three decades, Charlie Crist has been excellent at saying little or nothing of substance when answering questions, but at least he takes a stab at responding to questions. Rick Scott barely even pretends to answer questions. That’s not news to reporters who cover him in Tallahassee, but it is jarring to see it over and over again in a 60-minute debate.

How did he take responsibility for the systematic fraud that occurred under his watch as CEO of the Columbia/HCA hospital chain? Well, he took responsibility, he said, while Crist won’t. Huh?

Does he think alleged criminal activity of Florida State football players is a problem? Scott says he supports equal treatment of people. Good to know.

Can he explain why he won’t accept the overwhelming consensus among scientists that mankind has an impact on climate change? Scott says he takes action to protect the environment and Crist doesn’t.

Does he support a pathway to citizenship as part of comprehensive immigration reform? Scott wouldn’t say.

Does he support the concept of a minimum wage? “The private sector decides wages,” Scott said, nonsensically.

CNN’s Jake Tapper did an excellent job balancing the need to press the candidates for answers while giving them leeway, but even multiple attempts to prod Scott into direct answers were usually fruitless.

One wonders if as CEO Scott tolerated underlings who evaded his questions. It’s one thing to think reporters don’t deserve direct answers. It’s another to think that of Florida voters.

3. Weakest moments.

Tapper asked Crist about his judgment, considering that at least five of his top political allies, from former state GOP Chairman Jim Greer to Ponzi schemer and top money raiser Scott Rothstein, wound up behind bars.

“Well, you know I don’t have a crystal ball, and you can’t always foresee what people are going to do in their future,” Crist said lamely.

Scott’s worst moment, when Crist pressed him about his decision to postpone an execution because it conflicted with a fundraiser for Attorney General Pam Bondi, was even more painful to watch.

“Did the attorney general ask you to delay the execution so she could go forward with her political fundraiser?,” Crist demanded.

“See, the, it was, uh, she asked me to delay it because it didn’t work on the dates that she thought it was going to be on,” the governor meekly replied.

“Did you know it was for a political fundraiser?”

“Charlie, she apologized, she apologized. What would you like her to do?,” a frustrated Scott asked, without saying why he agreed to reschedule the execution.

4. No clear winner.

The average of recent polls compiled by the Huffington Post and RealClearPolitics show a race that is effectively tied or Crist leading by no more than a percentage point. No public poll has come out showing Scott damaged by his rocky performance during their “FanGate” debate.

Scott looked far more comfortable Tuesday than last week . He may have been helped by the format, which included no opportunities to ramble about his mother divorcing his father decades ago or about his grandson getting poked in the eye.

Crist was more aggressive, but less confident than a week ago. Still, he also did fine, made no mistakes and effectively made the case that he is more in touch with middle-class Floridians.

At the end of their final debate only one big question remained unasked and unanswered.

Is this really the best Florida can do?

Contact Tampa Bay Times Editor Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.

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