The final debate in the Florida governor's race was a pretty ugly spectacle, which I guess is what everyone wanted. Democrat Charlie Crist and incumbent Republican Rick Scott don't like each other very much. A good number of Floridians don't like either of them. Tuesday night's debate was a cage match - capably refereed by Jake Tapper - in which the two contestants hammered each other in the hope that the opponent would bleed some undecided voters.
According to the latest Quinnipiac poll, it's a neck and neck race going into the home stretch, tied at 42-42 with 7 percent for Libertarian candidate Adrian Wyllie. Even if Wyllie were taken out of the picture, it would still be a 44-44 tie. The battle is therefore over a very small number of undecideds and soft supporters, plus each candidate's unspoken hope that some of the other guy's voters will throw up their hands in disgust and stay home on Election Day. In most other races, the general sense of malaise hanging over Democrats saddled with an unpopular President would be an omen of doom for Crist, but Florida Democrats see Scott as vulnerable, and they're fired up to put one of their own in the governor's mansion, even if they had to buy their used candidate second-hand from the Republicans. (Actually third-hand. Charlie changes parties a lot.)
To get a couple of pox-on-both-their-houses items out of the way, both Crist and Scott spent far too much time touting their respective fact-checking and campaign websites. They were like human pop-up ads at times. That's a common problem among politicians these days, but it seemed especially obnoxious in this debate. Crying "check this website for the truth!" every five minutes is vapid, and probably over-estimates the willingness of debate audiences to scribble down Dubya Dubya Dubya addresses. Just say what you came to say, ladies and gentlemen of the political class. Impress us with your command of the facts.
Also, Crist and Scott spent an absurd amount of time re-enacting the Monty Python "Four Yorkshiremen" skit, each arguing that he had a rougher childhood than the other, each claiming the other currently lives in the lap of luxury and is thus disconnected from the Sainted Middle Class. The Monty Python version was much funnier. ("You were lucky! We lived for three months in a paper bag in a septic tank! We used to have to get up at six in the morning, clean the paper bag, eat a crust of stale bread, go to work down at the mill, fourteen hours a day, week-in week-out, for sixpence a week, and when we got home our Dad would thrash us to sleep with his belt!") However, I must admit that I laughed out loud at the sheer absurdity of Charlie Freakin' Crist criticizing someone else for spending too much time flying around in luxury planes. For the benefit of anyone who really cares about this tripe, both Crist and Scott are doing very well for themselves, and both own very nice houses. We are slathered with such greasy arguments because, in the wake of the 2012 presidential race, the political class is convinced voters won't listen to anything a candidate says if they think he's rich and out-of-touch. In other words, we're getting the politics we deserve. Enjoy!
Crist also got the other good laugh line of the night, when he tried patting himself on the back for having deep-seated principles. Charlie Crist's one and only "principle" is "Charlie Crist should be governor," and anyone old enough to remember his career as a Republican and Independent knows it. Unhappily for him, Florida is full of voters old enough to remember that. On the bright side, as mentioned, Scott left himself vulnerable enough to where state Democrats are comfortable with Crist's one and only principle - hence the neck-and-neck race in the slow lane of popularity.
Scott certainly didn't do himself any favors by botching the previous debate, in an incident that has come to be known as "Fangate." For the uninitiated, Crist wants a fan blowing on him at all times, because he looks like an extra from "The Walking Dead" without it. (Scott, for his part, has some odd body language when he speaks extemporaneously. I'd wager people who watched the debate rated both of them lower than those who listened to it or read transcripts.) Crist brought a fan to the previous debate in violation of the rules, and Scott handled it the worst way imaginable, by refusing to take the stage for a while. Not only was this very annoying to the people who gathered to watch the debate, it turned into a joke about Scott being petulant and indecisive that will probably follow him for the rest of his career. Tapper even made a little joke about it at the beginning of last night's event.
So here we are in the home stretch, with both Crist and Scott treating much of their debate as an opportunity to poke clunky sound bites out of each other, for use in last-ditch political ads. They both succeeded. Crist helpfully conceeded he "doesn't know the facts," which must have had every Scott campaign aide fumbling with their tablets and hissing "bookmark that!" backstage. Scott somehow managed to get taken completely aback by one of the questions he, like every Republican candidate in the land, must have known was coming: the minimum wage. Tapper did a better job of explaining the downside of raising the minim wage than Scott did. Crist didn't do himself any favors by wistfully hoping a magical job-dispensing unicorn would fly over Florida and cover the land with new jobs after he makes labor more expensive, in a state that's already got problems with its entry-level job market, and is about to be hit by the neutron bomb of Barack Obama's post-election amnesty executive orders.
Speaking of which, I find myself wondering what kind of shock therapy would be needed to make a Democrat like Crist admit there's a difference between legal and illegal immigration. Immigration is a very big issue in Florida, which makes it exceptionally unfortunate (and unsurprising) that we can't have rational discussions about it. Somewhere in the word salad Crist served up on immigration was something that sounded like a plan to give drivers' licenses to illegal aliens. It was one of several policy openings Scott didn't pursue on stage, but voters might pursue it anyway.
The two candidates spent a good deal of time accusing each other of scandalous behavior and calling each other liars, which isn't very edifying, but it makes for good theater, and fits into the overall strategy of driving the other man's negatives up. On the big substantive issue, job creation, Scott is the clear winner - Crist's tortured explanation for why he's not in any way responsible for what happened to the Florida job market while he was governor, but Rick Scott is personally responsible for every currently unemployed person in the state, was pure moron bait. Scott landed one of the most solid punches of the encounter by noting that Crist doesn't seem to understand how jobs are created. But then we were off into a food fight about which governor caused utility bills to rise, with dueling fact-check web addresses hurled at the viewer, and I think I might have lost consciousness for a minute. (Utility bills rose under both of them for different reasons, in case you don't feel like hitting all those websites.)
The strongest haymaker Crist landed on Scott concerned state Attorney General Pam Bondi's rescheduling of an execution to accommodate her fundraising schedule, which Scott handled by repeatedly reminding viewers she apologized for it. That's not a terribly satisfying response. On the other hand, it's debatable how much Florida voters really care about the issue (as opposed to the state's media class) or how much they're going to rally around Crist's big ideas for getting felons back into voting booths quickly. This might not be the right state, or national, moment to tell The People Who Work Hard and Play By the Rules that they need to spend more time worrying about felons. Also, it takes quite a bit of chutzpah for anyone from Fundraiser-in-Chief Barack Obama's party to criticize anyone else's fundraising schedule.
Like every other Democrat in a tight race, Crist made a race-baiting play, repeating a scurrilous accusation that unnamed individuals in the Republican Party drove him out of the party by opposing Barack Obama solely because he is black. (This will, once again, be a non-starter with Floridians old enough to remember that Marco Rubio is the real reason Charlie Crist left the party.) Amusingly, Crist followed up his Republicans-are-racists slander with a vow to reach across the aisle and work with them. Given President Obama's current level of unpopularity, this might not have been the ideal moment to uncork the old "opposition to Obama is racist" totalitarian jive. That's a lot of people Crist is insulting, including a good number of people who might otherwise have been willing to consider voting for him. Follow-up from Scott's campaign might be able to shake some soft Crist voters loose.
More than most gubernatorial races, this one's all about the incumbent; it's a dead heat because Scott's record provides a nicely balanced set of reasons for various constituencies to vote for, or against, him. He has an unfortunate tendency to act like he can't believe he's in such a close race, and he's not as good at shoveling out populist rhetoric as Crist - who went more than a little overboard by saying he supported "a woman's right to choose" by defending his wife's refusal to make her tax returns public. (Say, isn't Crist currently aligned with the political party that made a huge deal about Mitt Romney's tax returns, not so long ago? ) Scott had more to offer on substance during the final debate, but voters don't always remember substance as well as they remember the absence of style. He had enough clumsy moments to give Crist's red-zone offense something to work with, and Crist delivered enough sound-bite ammo to make Team Scott happy. You can see what both candidates were trying to do, and they both did it. I guess everybody won, especially Jake Tapper, who proved himself an excellent moderator. I only caught him wincing a couple of times.