TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist held their only debate Thursday before next month’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, bashing Gov. Ron DeSantis and casting themselves as their party’s best chance at beating the surging Republican.
Crist, a St. Petersburg congressman and former GOP governor, and Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, faced off in a broadcast debate taped earlier in South Florida. The primary is scheduled for Aug. 23.
The candidates fielded questions on abortion, gun legislation, immigration and other topics that dominated this year's contentious legislative session. But much of their harshest rhetoric was reserved for DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential contender.
“He is not on the side of the people. He is running for president of the United States. He cares only about his future and more about the White House than your house. That is why we need a change,” Crist said of the governor.
Fried, continuing a theme of her campaign, focused on Crist's past as a Republican governor, accusing him of changing positions and parties when politically expedient and being aligned with DeSantis on some policies.
“Unfortunately so many of these policy initiatives that he is fighting on today was Charlie's when he was a Republican," said Fried, drawing a line between the policies of DeSantis and Crist. “That is unacceptable. That is why we have to win.”
She also criticized Crist for his previous stances on abortion and his appointment of conservative Florida Supreme Court justices when he was governor, as a legal battle over a new 15-week abortion ban unfolds in the state.
Crist deflected the barbs, saying “I'm right for women, I'm right for pro-choice,” and at times painted Fried's attacks as desperate attempts to damage him amid his larger fundraising hauls and high-profile endorsements.
“This is the real problem, Nikki, we're in a Democratic primary and both of us want to unseat Governor DeSantis. If we're going to be able to do that we have to work together and stop tearing down your fellow Democrats and do what's right to win this election in November,” Crist said.
The candidates largely agreed on some topics like the need to address the rising cost of housing and their opposition to the new law forbidding instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, which critics have labeled the “ Don't Say Gay " law.
Both Crist and Fried also said they would support the death penalty for Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz, who murdered 14 students and three staff members at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School four years ago. A penalty trial is underway to determine whether Cruz will reach a death setnece or serve life in prison without parole.
The winner of the August primary will advance to face DeSantis in November.
The incumbent governor has become popular among Republicans in Florida and beyond, often placing himself at the forefront of controversial cultural issues and reporting large fundraising numbers ahead of the election. He is widely considered to be a leading possible 2024 GOP presidential contender.