Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Rep. Ron DeSantis sparred Thursday in Fox News’ Florida Republican gubernatorial debate over their support for President Trump, while DeSantis championed his relationship with the president and Putnam argued he’s more focused on local issues than his opponent.
Putnam, who spent 10 years in Congress before being elected statewide in Florida, used his opening statement to portray DeSantis, elected to Congress in 2012, as a creature of Washington. “What an exciting time to be in front of a live audience of 1,000 Florida Republicans,” Putnam said in his opening remarks. “It's different than a Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome to Florida, congressman.”
DeSantis played up Trump’s endorsement of his campaign, expressing doubt that Putnam adequately supports Trump. “I am proud to have the endorsement of President Trump in this race,” he said.
Added DeSantis, “When Donald Trump was trying to win Florida in 2016, Adam Putnam did not attend a single rally with him. You couldn’t find Adam Putnam if you had a search warrant.”
But Putnam played up his support for Trump, saying, “I support our president's agenda for our country.” He later emphasized: “I am focused on Florida.”
The two candidates took shots at each other throughout the hour-long debate. But on the issues, they both called on Trump to appoint a conservative to the Supreme Court, criticized California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters for her controversial recent comments and expressed concern over school shootings while defending Second Amendment rights.
Thursday’s debate, moderated by Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, took place at the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center in Kissimmee ahead of the Aug. 28 primary.
The debate unfolded amid breaking news of the mass shooting at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, where police said at least five people were killed. The candidates discussed gun control, referencing the recent infamous massacres in Florida at a nightclub and a high school.
“It is critically important that we defend our rights and protect our students in the schools,” Putnam said. “Those two things are not incompatible.”
“My wife and I have two young kids under the age of two,” DeSantis said. “The thought that someone would come and shoot them fills me with rage.”
Both called for the removal of Scott Israel, the sheriff of Broward County who came under criticism after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in February.
“I would have removed that sheriff from Broward County. He failed his citizens and he should have been removed,” DeSantis said.
“Sheriff Israel is under investigation and he needs to go,” Putnam said.
Thursday’s televised showdown is part of Fox News’ series of debates leading up to the 2018 midterm elections.
Though Trump endorsed DeSantis, a recent Fox News poll of Florida likely GOP primary voters finds Putnam ahead of DeSantis by a 32-17 percent margin. However, 39 percent of voters said they're unsure who they will back in the primary. Meanwhile, 46 percent of those supporting a candidate say they could still change their mind.
Meanwhile, there’s a crowded Democratic primary for governor, including Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, Orlando businessman Chris King and former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine.
The current governor of Florida, Republican Rick Scott, is challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson for the Senate.
Fox News’ Dana Blanton contributed to this report.