TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- A defiant Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis refused to commit to serving a full four-year term if reelected when pressed by his Democratic rival, Charlie Crist, at their only gubernatorial debate on Monday.
Crist, a former congressman and one-term governor, accused DeSantis, a rising Republican star considered a likely 2024 presidential contender, of being too distracted by his national political ambitions to lead properly. DeSantis skirted several attempts by Crist to get him to say he'd serve a full second term.
"I know that Charlie is interested in talking about 2024 and Joe Biden, but I just want to make things very, very clear: The only worn-out old donkey I'm looking to put out to pasture is Charlie Crist," DeSantis said of his 66-year-old opponent.
Later, Crist slapped back, "You won't even say if you want to be the governor of Florida after this election."
There were several heated clashes during a raucous debate that covered the COVID-19 pandemic, abortion, crime, education and President Joe Biden. The meeting came on the first day of early voting across the state; already, more than 1.1 million votes have been cast, the most in the nation.
The Florida governor's race may not be the nation's most competitive election this fall, but it is no less consequential for DeSantis, a 44-year-old Harvard-educated Republican who could launch a presidential bid in the coming months. He hopes to use a strong reelection victory on Nov. 8 in Florida, a state he carried by just 32,000 votes out of 8.2 million cast four years ago, to demonstrate the breadth and strength of his support.
DeSantis has benefited from demographic shifts across Florida, a perennial swing state that has shifted to the right during his first term. Former President Donald Trump carried the state by more than 3 points in 2020 and Republicans now hold a registration advantage of nearly 300,000 voters.
Monday's debate offered voters in Florida and beyond a rare opportunity to see DeSantis under pressure. Like many leading GOP officials across the nation this fall, he has limited unscripted moments in recent months, save for periodic interviews with friendly conservative media.
The candidates faced each other, both in dark suits and purple ties, from behind wooden lecterns in Fort Pierce, Florida's Sunrise Theater. Both men seemed to relish the hourlong fight, which was interrupted repeatedly by the rowdy audience.
DeSantis' embrace of divisive cultural issues weighed heavily on the prime-time affair.
The Republican governor specifically defended his record to bar transgender girls from competing on public school teams intended for student athletes identified as girls at birth. He also fired back against Crist's criticism of laws DeSantis signed limiting discussions of race and sexual orientation in schools and his opposition to gender transition treatments for minors.
"You think you know better than any physician or any doctor or any woman," Crist said. "You need to lead by uniting people, not dividing them."
Yet DeSantis has delighted his supporters over and over with his extraordinary willingness to fight -- whether facing political adversaries, the federal government or powerful Florida businesses. Crist, a former Republican governor who most recently served as a Democratic congressman, has tried to cast himself as a moderate alternative to lead the perennial swing state.
DeSantis' leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Ian were also charged topics.
Crist noted that DeSantis closed businesses and schools across the state early on during the pandemic and then ignored science by opening them too soon, leading to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
"We had one of the highest death rates in America, Ron," Crist said.
"He called for harsh shutdowns," DeSantis responded. "It would have thrown millions of Floridians into turmoil."
Over and over, DeSantis also sought to link Crist to Biden, whose popularity is sagging in Florida and across the nation. "Charlie Crist has voted with Joe Biden 100% of the time," DeSantis said, referring to the "Crist-Biden agenda."
The debate was postponed from earlier in the month because of Hurricane Ian, which left more than 100 people dead along the state's southwest coast. Thousands of homes were destroyed and several schools remain closed across Lee County, a major Republican stronghold.
The Category 4 storm exposed flaws in the state's fragile property insurance market, which has lost more than $1 billion in each of the last two years. Hundreds of thousands of Floridians have had their policies dropped or not renewed.
Crist accused DeSantis of failing to address the insurance crisis. DeSantis accused Crist of being away during the storm.
"He was hiding out in Puerto Rico. He wasn't helping his community," DeSantis jabbed.
When the discussion turned to gun violence, both candidates said they would support the death penalty for Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz, who this month was sentenced to life in prison for murdering 17 people in the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland.
DeSantis added that he would push the legislature to change state law requiring a unanimous jury for death sentences. That would put Florida in a distinct minority among the 27 states that still have the death penalty, where almost all require juror unanimity.
"I'm going to ask the Florida legislature to amend that statute so that one juror doesn't have veto power over appropriate punishment," DeSantis said.
Crist also sought to make abortion a key focus, following the playbook of Democrats across the nation in the wake of the Supreme Court's reversal of Roe v. Wade.
In April, DeSantis signed a law banning abortions at 15 weeks of pregnancy, with no exceptions for rape or incest. When asked by the moderator, DeSantis declined to say whether he supports a complete abortion ban.
"You deserve a better governor who cares about freedom and your right to choose," Crist said.