Republican gubernatorial candidates Adam Putnam and Ron DeSantis focused more on personal jabs than policy chasms Thursday night in their first face-to-face debate.
Putnam “welcomed” DeSantis to Florida. DeSantis repeatedly waved his endorsement from President Donald Trump in Putnam’s face.
“I am a proud and principled conservative and I am endorsed by the president of the United States,” said DeSantis, a congressman from northeast Florida. “I am ready to lead on Day 1.”
Putnam, though, stressed his Florida roots and experience in state government.
“I am a farmer. I am a small businessman,” said Putnam, who is completing his second term as the state’s commissioner of agriculture. “I know Florida best and I will always put Florida first.”
For the most part, the two agreed on many of the most pressing issues facing the Sunshine State.
Both support Trump’s trade tariffs, saying they will ultimately boost commerce for the state’s businesses. Both said they would sign legislation to ban abortions once a fetus has a heartbeat. Both steadfastly said they would support efforts to strengthen Floridians’ Second Amendment rights. Both oppose Medicaid expansion. Both oppose legalizing recreational marijuana.
The one area where they sharply disagreed was on a crucial wedge issue — immigration — for the 1,000 Republicans in attendance at the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center and the millions more watching on television.
DeSantis accused Putnam, as a member of Congress, of voting against sending the military to the border and opposing the implementation of the E-Verify system to curtail the hiring of undocumented workers.
“He didn’t put Florida first,” said DeSantis, arguing that Putnam put the interests of his corporate “donors” seeking “cheap foreign labor.”
Putnam fired back that DeSantis’ attack was “rich considering (DeSantis) voted to give food stamps to illegals” — a charge DeSantis immediately rejected by saying he voted against such a measure.
Putnam added that Congress — of which DeSantis is a member — had failed to solve the issue and create a workable system to meet the state’s labor needs.
“Washington should do its job,” Putnam said. “You have to have an immigration fix that meets the needs of this economy.”
On another volatile issue for Republicans, gun safety, the two fired broadsides at government officials, from the FBI to Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, for failing to prevent the shocking massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February.
“The lack of accountability is what puts our people at risk,” DeSantis said.
Putnam said that at “every silo of government, those children were let down.”
The gloves came off again — briefly — when DeSantis ripped Putnam for lacking “leadership” in the wake of a scandal involving his office’s failure to conduct background checks for concealed weapon permits on more than 300 people during a period of more than a year.
Putnam fired back that he showed leadership in firing the employee who failed to conduct the checks and providing accountability.
The Republican gubernatorial candidates’ first debate came at a pivotal moment for both campaigns — with two months to go before the issue is settled in the Aug. 28 primary.
Polls by Fox News and NBC News show Putnam as the clear frontrunner by double-digit margins. But both polls also show a large segment of the GOP electorate in Florida — 39 percent — remains undecided.
A fifth-generation Floridian who has deep connections across the state after more than two decades in public office, Putnam, 43, has built a robust statewide campaign that includes frequent grassroots events and strong fundraising.
DeSantis, 39, is a Harvard Law School graduate who served in the U.S. Navy and is a relative newcomer to politics, having won his first election in 2012. He has lagged in fundraising and is just starting to ramp up his grassroots campaigning. He doesn’t have the same network of longtime supporters.
But after staunchly defending Trump on Fox News, DeSantis has the advantage of Trump’s full-throated endorsement and support from other conservative heavyweights, such as Fox News host Sean Hannity, who is holding a series of rallies for DeSantis on Monday.
Putnam, who has spent the bulk of his adult life in public office, faces the challenge of trying to fend off a surging candidate who is seen as more conservative and more in line with the anti-establishment forces that have been propelling the party. DeSantis is trying to prove he can overcome a financial disadvantage and run a viable statewide campaign that goes beyond support in the conservative media and Trump’s seal of approval.
Nonetheless, Thursday night’s debate took place amid a surge of Republican optimism in Florida. Buoyed by a poll showing Trump’s approval rating topping 50 percent, and the lowest statewide unemployment rate since before the Great Depression, state Republicans are upbeat about their prospects for retaining the governor’s mansion, which they’ve held since 1999.
One area that was not covered in the debate is the one that many Republican officials and strategists insist is a winner for their candidates this fall — jobs.
Michael Barnett, chairman of Palm Beach County Republican Party, counseled both candidates to keep the issue front and center.
“We want to know what they are going to do to create jobs, what they are going to do to lure investment,” he said.
Barnett lauded the record of outgoing Gov. Rick Scott, who is seeking the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Bill Nelson, in creating jobs and spurring economic growth.
“The next governor is going to have big shoes to fill,” Barnett said.
Staff writer George Bennett contributed to this story.