JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Florida's leading candidates for governor clashed fiercely during their final debate on Tuesday night, sniping at each other over everything from the economy and the minimum wage to the death penalty.
Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist and Republican Gov. Rick Scott, essentially tied in the polls, used their final moments before the television cameras to come up with some of the most personal attacks leveled so far in what has already been an extremely negative campaign.
The debate's sponsors did not allow still photographers or reporters inside the studio during the event, preventing them from capturing the full context of how the candidates performed outside the view of the TV cameras.
Crist called Scott "out of touch" with regular Floridians, while Scott called Crist a "divider" who switched parties and policies to further his political career.
"What is he saying this year that he actually believes, whether it's on taxes, education, or abortion?" Scott asked.
As they debated the economy and who was responsible for the recovery, Scott contended that Crist, the son of a doctor, grew up rich and didn't know the struggles of poor people like he did. Crist fired back by saying that Scott, who is now a multimillionaire after growing up poor, didn't care about the middle class and spent all his time in a private jet and a seaside mansion.
Crist used that line to stress the need to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, which Scott opposes because he argued it could prompt some businesses to pare back the number of jobs they offer.
"How can somebody get by on $7.93 cents an hour?" asked Crist, who noted that some Floridians have to work extra jobs to make ends meet. "That's not an economy that's humming along."
Scott said he did believe there should be some sort of minimum wage in place, but when asked how much it should be, he responded: "How would I know? I mean the private sector decides wages."
But Scott then maintained it was just as important to have economic policies that help stimulate the economy. He faulted Crist for pursuing policies while he was governor that he said hurt the economy and led to job losses during the Great Recession.
"Just because you set a minimum wage doesn't mean you get a job," he said.
The debate on CNN also featured questions about Cuba, immigration, medical marijuana and whether ex-convicts deserve voting rights after they are released from prison. The candidates disagreed on nearly every one of them.
They each took digs at the other's past, with Crist attacking Scott over his time as the head of the hospital chain HCA/Columbia, which was fined $1.7 billion for Medicare fraud. Crist repeated a line from one of his ads, saying that Scott once invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination while questioned about an unrelated civil lawsuit.
Scott recounted the lines from one of his ads claiming that associates of Crist, including the former head of the Republican Party and Ponzi scheme organizer Scott Rothstein, wound up going to jail.
But one of the sharpest exchanges may have been while they discussed the death penalty.
Both men said they supported it, but Crist questioned how serious Scott takes the duty because he delayed an execution when the date conflicted with a political fundraiser for Attorney General Pam Bondi. Bondi later apologized for the incident and Scott said at the time he was unaware of the reason for the delay.
But Crist hammered away at Scott, asking him outright if he knew the delay was due to a fundraiser. Scott finally replied, "She apologized, Charlie. What would you like her to do?"
Crist responded, "He doesn't answer questions. Pleads the Fifth."