Five takeaways from Andrew Gillum and Ron DeSantis’ final gubernatorial debate

With a week and a half remaining until Election Day, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis have spared no punches in their final pushes to campaign for governor. And judging by their second and final public meeting before Nov. 6, neither are likely to turn the heat down. What Wednesday night’s debate might mean for the last 12 days of the election:

1. The rhetoric isn’t going to cool down

Both candidates are brawlers, and DeSantis tried to turn the very first question, about divisive political campaigning, into an attack on Gillum by suggesting the Democratic nominee had dangerous connections to groups like the Miami-based social justice group Dream Defenders, whose platform has asserted police have no place in society.

For his part, Gillum noted that bombs and suspicious packages were sent to a news organization and several Democratic politicians’ homes and offices Wednesday and said political discourse is “collapsing.” DeSantis’ infamous “monkey it up” comment the morning after the primary “was followed up that same week by neo-Nazis making calls into the state of Florida to attack my character, jungle music in the background, and the calls of monkeys being heard,” he said.

DeSantis, for his part, has accused Gillum of playing the victim and insisted that he is not racist. Gillum, when countering the point, even spelled out — on air — a racial slur he said a DeSantis supporter had used. Race’s center-stage role in the campaign is unlikely to subside: Gillum’s campaign criticized another racist robocall earlier this week.

2. Expect DeSantis to keep talking about ‘Hamilton’ and the FBI investigation in Andrew Gillum’s city

In a rare moment of regret, Gillum said he took responsibility “for not having asked more questions” about a ticket to “Hamilton” in August 2016 that turned out to have been provided by undercover FBI agents associated with a corruption investigation in Tallahassee.

But Gillum also asserted that of all the issues facing the state, “we got 99 issues, and ‘Hamilton’ ain’t one of them.” He said he released his receipts from his travel to New York and Costa Rica that are being reviewed by the Florida Commission on Ethics.

But the release of additional documents concerning Gillum’s relationship with a lobbyist and former friend — who is a focus of the probe — has given DeSantis oxygen in the race. “When I worked with the FBI, I was doing it as a prosecutor to bring people to justice,” DeSantis said in the debate. “When Andrew is dealing with the FBI, he’s dealing with an undercover agent as a person of interest in an investigation.”

Gillum has sought to pivot from the investigation by criticizing DeSantis for withholding his own receipts from the Naples Daily News for travel through his congressional office. “I get that this is what my opponent wants to discuss, but what happened to the $145,000 in receipts of public taxpayers’ money that he has yet to reveal?” Gillum asked.

3. Ron DeSantis’ healthcare plan is finally out — but he doesn’t have a lot of time to talk about it

The debate did more than push DeSantis to talk about healthcare — the candidate, amid needling from Democrats about his thin policy position on the topic, also dropped a long-awaited healthcare proposal on his website Wednesday night.

The platform calls for expanding “patient choices” and repeats his his longstanding opposition to Medicaid expansion, a major Gillum promise. DeSantis also said he is committed to finishing the implementation of Florida’s medical marijuana system, which has lagged since the Legislature passed a bill to put it in place last year, and to expand resources for combating the opioid epidemic.

But DeSantis has spent substantially more time talking about education, the economy and the environment during the general election — and the release of his healthcare plan a week and a half out gives the candidate little opportunity to discuss the issues.

4. Another target of DeSantis: the ‘altar of political correctness’

One of the first unforced errors from DeSantis, the morning after the primary, was his “monkey it up” comment that the Gillum campaign said was a racist whistle-call. The Republican has also been criticized for his appearance at the David Horowitz Freedom Center conference, some of whose members have been accused of racism.

That asserted narrative clearly frustrated DeSantis Wednesday night, when he fired back at a moderator mid-question when the topic was raised: “How the hell am I supposed to know every single statement somebody makes?” he asked angrily. “I am not going to bow down to the altar of political correctness. I am not going to let the media smear me as they’ve done with so many people.”

Gillum took the opportunity to needle DeSantis: “My grandmother used to say a hit dog will holler — and it hollered through this room. ... Now I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.”

5. Gillum and DeSantis sparring over environment — and Gillum’s advisor tied to sugar industry

Both Gillum and DeSantis have tried to carve out identities in the campaign as champions of the environment — and are likely to keep bashing each other on the issue until Election Day. DeSantis has touted an endorsement from the Everglades Foundation, while Gillum has tried to tie him to inaction around the algae crises around the state.

DeSantis touted his status as the “only candidate who fought Big Sugar and lived to tell about it. They came after me in my primary with millions and millions of dollars attacking me every which way. They called me everything but a child of God.”

Sugar is more fraught a topic for Gillum — one of his closest political advisors, Tallahassee lobbyist Sean Pittman, has represented Florida Crystals, a major player in the industry. Gillum did not respond to questions about Pittman Wednesday when he fired back at DeSantis about what he said was a paltry environmental record in Congress.

“He’s taken over a couple of hundred thousand dollars from the biggest polluters of this state,” he contended. “Mr. DeSantis is not going to stand up to Big Sugar or big polluters because he’s owned by them.”

Herald/Times staffers David Smiley, Joey Flechas and Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this story.

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