Scott/Crist debate could clarify issues for voters, if rules allow

ON OPPOSITE SIDES: Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Charlie Crist shake hands as they finish their first debate of the campaign last week.
ON OPPOSITE SIDES: Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Charlie Crist shake hands as they finish their first debate of the campaign last week. Getty Images

After $72 million collectively spent on nasty ads demonizing one another, Rick Scott and Charlie Crist have finally started their TV debates, which should be an opportunity for voters to compare the two candidates side by side as they defend their records and share their vision for Florida’s future.

It may yet happen, but I’m not hopeful. It didn’t happen in the first debate last Friday at Telemundo, where the candidates mostly repeated lines from their attack ads and regurgitated talking points. There was no real interaction between Scott and Crist, no opportunity for them to ask each other questions. The questions asked were good ones, but the format was so rigid that it eliminated any spontaneous moments. Those unscripted moments are when candidates reveal themselves, show the stuff they’re made of, demonstrate their ability to think on their feet and speak from the heart. We’re still waiting for that.

Lawton Chiles may have won the governor’s race in a 1994 TV debate when he warned a cocky Jeb Bush, “The old he-coon walks just before the light of day.” You can bet nobody drummed that bit of cracker wisdom into Chiles during rehearsal; it came out in the heat of battle because that’s who Lawton was. Jeb was flummoxed by the phrase as were many others, but everyone recognized it as authentic, genuine Chiles, the old he-coon of Florida politics. He went on to win.

That 1994 St. Petersburg debate was, hands down, the best political debate I’ve ever seen in Florida, mainly because the candidates were sharp and the moderator was Tim Russert of NBC. I was standing close by before the debate began as the organizers — the League of Women Voters among others — sternly ordered Tim not to deviate from their highly structured format. He had to allot so much time for a candidate to answer, so much time for the opponent to rebut, etc., then quickly move on. Tim listening thoughtfully, nodding, saying Yes, he understood the format had been carefully worked out beforehand with each camp.

Then the debate started and Tim immediately threw the format out the window and ran the next hour with warm, even-handed wit and professionalism that gave each candidate a fair chance to answer questions and his opponent plenty of time to rebut. Sometimes at length, when needed, sometimes in just a few seconds. Tim gave both Bush and Chiles opportunities to speak directly to each other, to refute, to question, to criticize. The result was a real debate, a thing of beauty.

Will the same thing happen when Scott and Crist face off this evening at Broward College? Possible, but unlikely given the overly rehearsed candidates and the format. The moderator will be Eliott Rodriguez, a fine journalist and a friend, who could produce an exciting and informative debate if allowed some latitude. I hope he gets it from the sponsors, the Florida Press Association and Leadership Florida.

They approached Channel 10 in the past to partner in a debate, which we wanted to do. Until they tried to dictate a stodgy, 1980s-style format that we thought would drive viewers away. When they refused to take our advice we backed out. But it looks like they may have learned a lesson because tonight’s debate — while sticking to the 60-second answer, 30-second rebuttal format — has, in addition to a fine moderator, two smart newspaper veterans posing questions and also input from viewers on Facebook and Twitter.

Tonight’s debate will be especially important for Charlie Crist. He’s extremely comfortable on TV, but is no great debater. He was merely OK on the Telemundo debate while Rick Scott, for whom expectations were low, started stiffly but got looser and stronger as the hour wore on. By the end, Scott was cruising, exuding confidence, smiling and delivered his closing statement in serviceable, if ugly, Spanish. Crist, by contrast, seemed to run out of steam.

Political debates are, at their core, a kind of political theater. We in the media often make the mistake of reviewing them as if they were real theater. They’re not. The candidates aren’t actors, reciting their lines from memory. Or they shouldn’t be. In last week’s debate, however, they were. Let’s see if we can catch a glimpse of the real Crist and Scott tonight. And find a reason to vote for one of them.