The Florida governor’s race descended into a verbal slug-fest on Wednesday night as the two candidates hurled insults at each other during their final televised debate.
Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis began the evening decrying political divisiveness pipe bombs were sent to prominent politicians and CNN, before the gloves came off and they began laying into one-another.
Gillum, who has been the target of a racist robo-call campaign, was at pains to paint his opponent as a political extremist who panders to xenophobes for support.
Meanwhile DeSantis followed the tried-and-tested Trump attack lines – hitting out at Gillum for being soft on crime and wanting to abolish ICE.
Gillum leads DeSantis 52 to 46 per cent, according to the latest polls, but that gap has been narrowing as the campaign has drawn on.
At one point Gillum spelled out the n-word on live television as he torn into DeSantis.
‘My grandmother used to say a hit dog will holler. He has neo-Nazis helping him out in this state,’ Gillum said.
‘He has spoken at racist conferences. He has accepted a contribution and would not return it from someone who referred to the former president of the United States as a Muslim n-i-g-g-e-r.
‘I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I’m saying the racists believe he’s a racist.’
But DeSantis, who is backed by President Trump, was packing punches of his own that followed the same line of attack favored by the Commander in Chief.
He bashed Gillum, who serves as Mayor of Tallahassee, for being soft on crime and wanting to abolish ICE, which he said would leave child molesters on the streets.
‘Say you’re convicted of child molestation. You’re here illegally. You served your sentence. State prison. Are you going to hand them over to ICE or not?’ he said.
‘He will not commit to doing that. That means that child molester convicted gets released back on the streets after serving the sentence.
‘And guess what? That child molester will re-offend, and someone’s son or daughter in Florida will end up paying the price.’
DeSantis also accused Gillum of being corrupt for accepting two $1,000 tickets to Hamilton from undercover FBI agents.
Gillum defended himself, saying he believed the tickets were given to his brother in exchange for Jay-Z concert pass.
While Gillum’s attacks on DeSantis’s ‘racist’ support didn’t seem to phase him, a question from moderator Todd McDermott riled him.
McDermott asked about his decision to speak at events organized by someone who has made racially inflammatory comments, to which he responded: ‘How the hell am I supposed to know every single statement somebody makes? I am not going to bow down to the altar of political correctness.’
In the brief moments when the candidates spoke about political issues, rather than each-other, it revealed stark differences in their platforms.
DeSantis reiterated he would have vetoed a bill signed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott three weeks after February’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that raised the age limit to buy a rifle from 18 to 21 and imposed a three-day waiting period on rifle purchases.
He believes the increased age limit for buying rifles will be found unconstitutional. Instead of adding gun restrictions, he said, the state should tighten school security and blamed the massacre, which left 17 dead, on local and federal officials who did not stop suspect Nikolas Cruz despite numerous warnings.
‘The way to keep our communities safe is to work with law enforcement, not against law enforcement, and you need to identify those individuals who should not have access to firearms,’ he said.
Gillum said he would have pushed for a stronger bill than Scott signed.
‘If you want to own the power of God at your waist belt, you should have a background check. If you are a domestic violence abuser, convicted, you should not have a gun where you could snuff out the lives of your loved ones,’ Gillum said.
Gillum defended his proposal to raise corporate income taxes. Gillum said it would only raise taxes on the top 3 percent of the richest corporations and it is only a fraction of the $6.3 billion they received from a tax cut Trump signed into law.
‘All we’re simply saying is that they can keep $5.3 billion but we deserve a billion of that to come into this state’ for education, he said.
DeSantis replied, ‘Businesses will leave the state, people will lose jobs and we’ll stop people from investing in Florida. It will be a historic mistake.’
The candidates had wide divergence on health care. Gillum said he would push for an expansion of Medicaid to bring 800,000 low-income Floridians into the program.
‘If we do that, we will pull down $6 billion from the federal government that will go into this state’s health care system, so we can hire more doctors, more nurses, more nurse practitioners,’ Gillum said.
He said DeSantis voted more than a dozen times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare, and told a cancer patient to go to an emergency room to get health care.
DeSantis fired back, saying Gillum wants to put Floridians into a government-run health care system that would decimate Medicare and private and employer-provided insurance programs.
‘Some people were paying more for premiums than for rent, so people couldn’t afford it. Some people lost access,’ DeSantis said.
‘Andrew supports a single-payer plan which will force people off Medicare, force people off their employer plans and put them on a government-run single-payer plan that is wrong.’