John Fund: Florida GOP candidates for governor try to top each other in supporting Trump in Fox News debate

Florida has the third-largest state population in the nation, so the race to succeed outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Scott is getting outsized attention. As Thursday night’s Fox News Republican gubernatorial primary debate between Rep. Ron DeSantis and state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam showed, President Trump is overshadowing other issues in the race.

Both candidates know they can’t be viewed as opposing the president in a GOP primary if they hope to win.

"I look forward to campaigning with him (President Trump) as governor of Florida," Putnam told Fox News moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum.

DeSantis jumped on that comment. "That would be the first time he ever campaigned with him, because when Donald Trump was trying to win Florida in 2016, Adam Putnam did not attend a single rally with him," DeSantis said. "You couldn't find Adam Putnam if you had a search warrant."

Putnam responded by taking the view that DeSantis, a frequent Fox News guest, was more familiar with the network’s studios than he was with the problems of Florida.

"It's completely different from a Washington, D.C. studio," Putnam said of the Florida-based debate. "Welcome to Florida, congressman."

DeSantis, a veteran and former Navy lawyer, responded that he has been absent from Florida to serve his country and state. He said that before he was elected to Congress he served as a Navy officer handling legal issues in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He then noted that since being elected to Congress, he has had to spend a lot of time in Washington do his job.

The debate then moved on to how the two candidates had stood on Trump in the 2016 campaign. DeSantis pointed out that Putnam had condemned some of Trump’s comments about women as “vile, obscene and dishonorable.”

Putnam pivoted by claiming that “I did not call the president those things.” True on a technicality, because Putnam was criticizing Trump’s comments rather than Trump as a person.

Putnam desperately wants to avoid having the race focus on President Trump. His campaign has spent millions of dollars pummeling DeSantis as an out-of-touch Washington insider. He knows that DeSantis will soon respond with his own ads touting the fact that President Trump has endorsed DeSantis.

“I am proud to have the endorsement of President Trump in this race,” DeSantis said at the debate.

Putnam, whom the latest poll shows leads DeSantis, by 32 percent to 17 percent, hopes the surge his opponent gets from the Trump endorsement won’t be enough to close the gap. Both candidates are concentrating their appeals on the one in four Republicans who tell pollsters they are still undecided.

Immigration is likely to be a major issue when voters cast ballots in the Aug. 28 Florida primary.

DeSantis said that Putnam, who served 10 years in the U.S. House before returning to Florida in 2014, backed a comprehensive immigration bill and opposed the E-Verify program that required state employers to check on any job applicant’s legal status.

Putnam counterattacked in the debate by accusing DeSantis of supporting welfare benefits for immigrants.

The irony is that the winner of the GOP gubernatorial primary will likely backpedal and downplay the immigration issue in a bid to appeal to Hispanic voters. Nearly 1 million Puerto Ricans have used their status as U.S. citizens to move to Florida in the last decade, including several hundred thousand who came after last year’s Hurricane Maria.

Both front-running Democratic candidates for their party’s nomination for governor – former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham and former Miami Beach Mayor Phil Levine – are counting on the state’s expanded Puerto Rican vote to carry them over the finish line in the November election. But while Florida is viewed as hyper-competitive in presidential elections, Republicans have won the governorship in every election since 1994.

This fall, look for President Trump – who uses his estate in Palm Beach as the Southern White House – to dominate the race in the Sunshine State the same way he is dominating the GOP primary.

Florida politics – just like politics in America – is all about the president and how people react to him.