GOP governor hopefuls slug it out in debate; Putnam knocks Trump


Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam dubbed U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis the “Seinfeld candidate,” but the punchline might have inadvertently summed up the Wednesday debate between the two Republican gubernatorial candidates: “It all adds up to nothing.”

The two men, who agree on most major issues, slugged it out with one-liners for much of their hour-long debate.

In the end, it was not clear Putnam would be able to use his pugnacious performance to halt the apparent momentum DeSantis has gained in the aftermath of an endorsement from President Donald Trump.

“If anything it cemented the narrative of the last few weeks,” said Michael Binder, a University of North Florida political science professor who conducts polling in the state. “DeSantis is pulling away.”

At one point, Putnman acknowledged frustration that could turn out to be the defining element in the GOP primary: “I wish (Trump) hadn’t put his thumb on the scale of Florida’s campaigns.”

Putnman, an affable Florida GOP scion, mocked what he viewed as the shallowness of DeSantis’ campaign and the gulf between their knowledge about Florida.

Putnam enjoys backing from much of the state’s political establishment, while DeSantis’ campaign has been powered by repeated appearances on Fox News, Trump’s endorsement and national campaign cash.

“This election is a choice between the Washington way and putting Florida first,” Putnman said in his opening remarks. He called DeSantis a “Seinfeld candidate” who used celebrity and little else to bolster his profile.

DeSantis argued Putnman is a candidate flush with special-interest cash — particularly from the sugar industry — who would be unable to make the hard choices needed to clean Florida’s waterways, a high-profile issue as a red tide on Florida’s Southwest coast and toxic algae blooms from Lake Okeechobee generate headlines and nightly news stories in the state and across the nation.

“Adam is basically the errand boy for U.S. Sugar,” DeSantis said.

Putnam fired back that DeSantis’ out-of-state contributions “come from casino owners and pornographers.”

DeSantis mocked Putnam’s 22 years in public office.

Putnam called DeSantis a “career politician with ADD.”

DeSantis and Putnam sought to undermine their opponent’s conservative credentials throughout questioning by the moderator, but often it became clear the two differ little. Neither voiced support, for example, for the gun-control measures passed by the Florida Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott in the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February.

Although DeSantis slammed Putnam’s financial support by the sugar industry, it’s not clear how he’ll address the state’s environmental problems.

“I’m going to be open to any approach,” he said, when asked if he’d support more funding for the state Department of Environmental Protection to combat algae blooms.

The two tangled over their records and the ethical nature of their financial backers. At one point, they diverged on a several-minute debate over DeSantis’ support for the “Fair Tax,” a conservative policy proposal that would eliminate the income tax and supplement it with a plan to eliminate the income tax and replace it with a national sales tax.

That’s an unrealistic plan, Putnam said, that “may sound good in a Harvard economics classroom.”

“The lefties at Harvard would hate the fair tax,” DeSantis replied.

The debate was hosted by Jacksonville University and WJXT-4.



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