In their final --- and most heated --- debate before the Nov. 4 election, incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Charlie Crist came out swinging Tuesday night, excoriating each other's records as the state's chief executive and each painting his rival as out of touch with everyday Floridians.
Scott and Crist, a former Republican who left office after a single term and is now seeking his old job back as a Democrat, traded jabs over the economy, racial justice and the death penalty and drew sparks over each others' wealth. Scott, who reported his net worth as $132.7 million last year, repeatedly contrasted his deprived childhood with that of Crist, whose father is a St. Petersburg doctor.
Scott, a former health care executive who made his fortune as the head of the Columbia/HCA hospital chain, repeatedly recalled how he grew up in public housing and how his parents struggled to pay for health insurance and Christmas presents.
"I watched a parent that lost the only family car. I watched a father struggle to buy Christmas presents. I went through that as a child. Charlie never went through that. Charlie grew up with plenty of money. He's never had to worry about money. He has never had to worry about being laid off. Charlie has done fine in life. But what I'm going to fight for every day is what I've done the last three years and nine months, I'm going to fight for families like mine growing up," Scott said.
Crist, who listed his net worth of $1.25 million last year, portrayed himself as an advocate for middle-class Floridians whose family had humble beginnings.
"He talks about that I've done fine in life. Listen, when I was a little kid, we lived in a small apartment in Atlanta when my dad was going to medical school and he used to delivered newspapers to make ends meet. So you don't know me and you can't tell my story. And I'm not going to tell yours. But I know you are worth about $100 or $200 million today," Crist said. "And you know, God bless you for that wealth, Rick. But the way you got it was pretty unsavory. And you know, the fact that you just don't relate to people, real people in Florida today and the struggles they have, and you won't lower utility rates, you won't lower property insurance, it is wrong."
Tuesday's hour-long debate, moderated by Jake Tapper of CNN and Kent Justice of WJXT, a Jacksonville television station where the match-up was held, was a marked contrast to last week's meeting between the two rivals. That debate became the butt of national late-night comedy shows over a controversy regarding a small fan placed next to Crist's feet beneath the podium. Scott refused to join Crist on stage for more than four minutes, and later accused Crist of breaking the debate rules.
In another heated moment Tuesday, Tapper asked Crist about his accusations that GOP leaders were hostile toward President Barack Obama because of his race.
Tapper asked Crist if he believed all Republicans are racists.
"No. I'm saying that element exists," Crist said, referring obliquely to emails "distributed by some members of the Republican party" that "weren't exactly flattering" about Obama. He said he drew flak from GOP officials because of his now-infamous embrace of Obama as governor and for taking federal stimulus money when Florida, and the rest of the country, were in the midst of an economic meltdown.
"It wasn't right. The reaction that I have gotten from some in the Republican party, leadership, wasn't tolerable to me," Crist said. "And it was pretty clear to me. It wasn't just because I was willing to work across the aisle with a Democrat to get the recovery funds to come to Florida. It was also pretty apparent to me because it was the first African-American president. Listen, I don't enjoy saying that. It's not what --- you know, it's not fun to say, but I'm going to tell the truth and those are the facts."
"You're a divider. You're a mudslinger. You're a divider," Scott retorted, accusing Crist of failing to take action when he was governor. "We are the best melting pot in the world and you want to try to divide people. I want everybody to have the same shot I had to live the American dream."
Crist blasted Scott for turning down millions of dollars for a high-speed rail project in Central Florida and for refusing to back an expansion of Medicaid, saying both would have brought thousands of jobs to the state.
"I'm action and I got things done and I'll do it again and I'll work with anybody --- Republican, Democrat or independent," he said
In another pointed exchange, the two candidates wrestled over the death penalty. Scott, who has signed a record number of death warrants in his first term in office, pushed lawmakers to pass a measure this spring that supporters said was aimed at speeding up the time between convictions and executions.
The question about executions prompted an intense back-and-forth between the two governors over an execution that Scott rescheduled last year at the request of Attorney General Pam Bondi. The attorney general asked to have the execution delayed because it conflicted with a fundraiser slated for the same evening for her re-election campaign.
"Now, to me, and my way of thinking, that doesn't sound like somebody is taking that solemn duty as seriously as they should. I don't understand that," Crist said.
Crist interrupted Scott --- who said he considers the death penalty "a solemn duty" and that he "thinks of the victims" when weighing executions --- and demanded to know whether he was aware that he had canceled the execution for a fundraiser.
"It was -- she asked me to delay it because it didn't work on the dates that she thought it was going to be on," Scott said.
Crist did not back down.
"Did you know it was for a political fundraiser?" he asked.
"Charlie, she apologized. She apologized. What would you like her to do?" Scott responded.
"I didn't ask about her. Did you know it was for a political fundraiser?"
Scott repeated his answer.
"He doesn't answer questions. Pleads the Fifth," Crist finished.
Questions about racial justice wound up in a tangle over restoration of civil rights, something Crist pushed in his first few months as governor after his 2006 election.
Referring to Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old black teenager who was gunned down by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Tapper asked the candidates if they believed that African-Americans, especially young black men, get "a fair shake" in the criminal justice system.
"My goal is that they do," Scott said, trying to discuss how he handled the Martin shooting but getting interrupted by Tapper.
"We have completely changed how we do juvenile justice. We've had a dramatic drop in the number of arrests since I got elected. We have the lowest recidivism out of our prison system because we put in reentry programs and we've helped try to make sure that if you get out of prison, you actually get a job … unlike under Charlie when you couldn't get a job," Scott said. "So, are we making progress? Yes. Is there more work to do? Absolutely."
Crist disagreed. "I don't believe they do. I think it's sad. I think it's very important that everybody is treated equally and get the justice they deserve," Crist said, boasting that he worked to restore rights to non-violent felons.
"Sadly under Rick Scott, it's gone and it's gone for at least five years, you can't even apply," he said.
In one of his first actions as governor, Scott pushed the Florida Cabinet to do away with the "automatic" restoration of rights and impose one of the nation's strictest waiting-periods before ex-felons can apply.
"Here's Charlie's plan. You commit a heinous crime, as soon as you get out of jail, you get to vote. Stalk, you get to vote as soon as you walk out. You have intentional permanent disfigurement of a child, you walk out of jail, you immediately get to vote," Scott said. "That's wrong, Charlie."
Again, Crist fired back.
"That is fundamentally unfair. I said nonviolent criminals. You are lying again," he said.
Tuesday evening's angry tone --- exactly two weeks before Election Day and with early voting already underway --- set the stage for the candidates' final push as they swing through the state seeking support. On Wednesday, former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani is slated to help kick off a Scott campaign bus tour in Doral.
Crist is slated to remain in Jacksonville and campaign with U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown.