Florida gubernatorial candidates are out in left, and right, field for now

Four of the five Democratic candidates running to be Florida’s next governor recently took part in a televised debate.
Four of the five Democratic candidates running to be Florida’s next governor recently took part in a televised debate. WTVT-Ch. 13/Tampa Bay Times

In the race to be Florida’s next governor, Republican candidates are running to the far right, Democrats to the far left. So what else is new? Well, what’s new is how nakedly and dishonestly a few are running, how cleverly and artfully are a few others. And how one or two are merely circulating, the political equivalent of Brownian motion: dim sound and synthetic fury signifying nothing.

Let’s try to sort it out.

On the Republican side, the race is simpler because there are only two candidates — Adam Putnam and Ron DeSantis — and they are tighter than a tick on almost every issue. The only difference I heard in their first debate was over E-Verify, which would require employers to hire only legal immigrants. Putnam, whose family runs a big citrus operation, opposes E-Verify; DeSantis, a lawyer and Navy veteran, says Putnam’s bowing down to Big Ag because they need bodies to run their farms and groves.

Another difference — although it didn’t come up in the debate — involves big money from Big Sugar. Putnam takes it, DeSantis doesn’t.

The two candidates are locked in a race that has suddenly gotten tighter and more contentious. They both showed good debating chops Friday on Fox News. “I just want to say welcome to Florida, congressman,” Putnam began, a nice jab at DeSantis who still has congressional duties and campaigns mostly on Fox from Washington.

DeSantis lost no time proclaiming that he’s been endorsed by President Trump. He said it early and often. In fact, both candidates did some serious sucking up to the president. The whole point of the first debate seemed to be proving who can move the farthest right and love Trump more. Jump ball on that one, although there’s evidently nothing Trump has done that displeases DeSantis. “When Donald Trump was trying to win Florida in 2016,” after Putnam said he’d gladly campaign for Trump in 2020, DeSantis declared, “Adam Putnam did not attend a single rally with him in 2016. You couldn’t find Adam Putnam if you had a search warrant.” Point DeSantis.

The debate was televised live, and the moderators, Brett Baier and Martha McCallum, posed tough, fair, no-nonsense questions. Although there were none about the environment or the economy, they did ask about a pledge both candidates have made to sign a “heartbeat bill” should the Legislature pass one. Both candidates said they would, which would essentially outlaw abortion. Both candidates also toed the NRA line on guns with Putnam, a self-described “NRA sell-out,” declaring at one point that, “People on the left want to take away your guns.” That’s absurd, and Putnam knows it. It’s one of those empty political assertions that mollify the gun nuts, but may come back to haunt Putnam in the general election, if he wins the primary.

Putnam also fibbed when he vehemently denied ever calling Trump “vile and obscene,” as DeSantis alleged. After the “Access Hollywood” tape came out in October 2016, Putnam said Trump’s “comments were vile and obscene.” At the debate he should have stood by his words while making it clear he was putting down Trump’s words on assaulting women, not his person. Although it’s hard to tell the difference.

Putnam went into the debate leading in the polls by about 16 points. I’d guess he’s still ahead, but DeSantis made up some ground and will make up more when he unleashes a $12 million TV ad campaign.

Jeff Greene, the Palm Beach billionaire, is already spending millions on TV to win the Democratic nomination. To his credit, he went to a black mega-church in Miami Gardens last week to take part in a gubernatorial forum, which I moderated, where the audience clearly sided with Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum. “I’m a billionaire,” Greene said in his opening. “Please don’t hold it against me.” It’s not every day that you hear a very wealthy person apologize for having so much money. Greene, however, explained that he came from a middle-class family that struggled after his father died young and his stay-at-home-mom went to work as a banquet waitress and came home late at night exhausted. Lots of nodding heads in the room at that.

Greene also recounted how he hung drywall, worked in kitchens and still graduated from Johns Hopkins and later got an MBA from Harvard. He did well in business, then made a fortune in the mid-2000s betting that the housing market would collapse. But he says he understands the plight of the poor and underprivileged. The predominantly black audience at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church gave him a warm reception.

But it was Gillum’s crowd, and he gave them what they wanted: eloquent, left-leaning Democratic orthodoxy with a big heart and a winning smile. Gillum is far and away the most charismatic of the Democrats running and suddenly has a chance to win with a $1 million contribution from California billionaire Tom Steyer. Gilllum’s already received big bucks from George Soros, the bete noire of the right. Whoever wins the Republican nomination will have a field day with Gillum’s money ties to Steyer and Soros. “I’ve known George Soros for 25 years,” Gillum told me. “He’s never asked me to do anything for him.”

The other Democrats in the race — Chris King, Philip Levine and Gwen Graham — are each solid in his or her own way, but none has closed the deal. The race for the Democratic nomination for governor remains wide open — as does the Republican race. After the Aug. 28 primary, the winners will moderate and move to the center. But their words now may be a truer reflection of where they really stand. Mostly far right and far left. The eventual winner will find the sweet spot\ close to the middle.