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Crist, Fried square off for Democratic primary

Charlie Crist and Nikki Fried debate
Democratic gubernatorial candidates Nikki Fried and Charlie Crist squared off Thursday night in their only debate before the Aug. 23 primary election. The debate was hosted by NBC 6 and Telémundo.

State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, the Democratic candidates vying to prove they are the most formidable challenger to Gov. Ron DeSantis as he seeks reelection, both claimed they won their only primary debate --- even before viewers had a chance to tune into the grudge match.

According to Crist’s campaign, the congressman “decisively” won the exchange. But according to his opponent’s team, Fried’s performance contributed to a “wave of support” among prospective voters.

No candidate’s hand is raised in victory after verbal blows are traded. Public opinion about who came out on top isn’t always readily discernible. But Thursday’s televised contest provided a preview of what is likely to be a bitterly fought primary with a month left before the final bell rings.

Throughout the hour-long debate, Fried, Florida’s lone statewide-elected Democrat, repeatedly jabbed at Crist, a former Republican governor whose political career spans three decades.

The duo sparred over who is prepared to protect abortion access, following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision on abortion. The court said women do not have a constitutional right to abortion and the issue should be left up to the states.

“I have been pro-choice my entire life. … Charlie cannot say the same thing,” Fried said, accusing Crist of having appointed “radical extremists” to the Florida Supreme Court during his tenure as governor. Two of Crist’s appointees, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston, are part of a conservative majority on the court.

“So you want to know why the right to privacy is going to be overturned here in the state of Florida? It’s because of decisions Charlie made when he was governor,” she said.

Crist attempted to parry Fried’s attacks on his abortion record by chalking them up to “desperation,” painting a picture of a floundering campaign.

“Nikki, you know that’s just not true and you shouldn’t say those kinds of things because you’re trying to muddy it up. Let’s understand what’s going on here. You’re losing this campaign. It’s time for desperation, and now it’s on full display all over the state of Florida, and I’m sorry to see that,” he retorted.

As Democrats look for a chance to take back the governor’s mansion for the first time in more than two decades, both candidates tried to convince voters that they are best suited to take on the incumbent.

DeSantis commands high popularity among Republicans and is sitting on a massive campaign war chest.

“We’re in a Democratic primary but both of us want to unseat Gov. DeSantis. If we’re going to be able to do that, we have to work together and stop tearing down your fellow Democrats and do what’s right to win this election in November,” Crist scolded Fried.

But Fried argued that she has bucked DeSantis since they took office in 2019.

“I stand up against this bully every single day. … I’ve been doing it for 3 1/2 years,” she said. “If you vote for Charlie, we’re going to see Ron DeSantis running for president because he will get another term. If you vote for me in this primary, you will have a fighter, and we will end Ron DeSantis’ career.”

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