The last debate between the two major Republican candidates for governor was a feisty hour full of one-liners. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam compared Congressman Ron DeSantis‘ campaign to the 90’s TV show Seinfeld, a campaign about nothing. DeSantis called Putnam the “errand boy for U.S. Sugar.” Unlike the first debate which focused almost exclusively on national issues, this one gave both candidates plenty of opportunity to talk about issues directly impacting Florida.
Putnam continued to label DeSantis as an outsider more concerned with Washington than Florida. DeSantis, like Putnam, was born and raised in Florida. For the first time, DeSantis discussed specific positions on state issues – health care, education, the second amendment, and illegal immigration. There were times he agreed with Putnam’s policy positions.
The environmental emergency in southern Florida caused by toxic algae discharges coming from Lake Okeechobee received significant attention in the debate. Who to blame was the primary focus. DeSantis blamed runoff into the lake from the sugar industry. “Adam is basically the errand boy for U.S. Sugar,” Desantis said. “He will not do anything that offends US Sugar, who is his main supporter. He’s going to let them do what they need to do, and all these other things – I’m not saying that some of them aren’t worthwhile but at the end of the day if you let one company call the shots, we’re going to continue to end up having the problem. Nobody should get special treatment.”
Putnam seemed to place most of the blame on septic tank discharges into the Lake – quoting a University of Florida and Florida Atlantic University study – and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates the flow of water from the Okeechobee. Putnam blamed the Army Corps for twenty years of delays. He then questioned DeSantis’ knowledge of the problem. “I think you can put everything my opponent knows about water on your stick note and still have room left over for your grocery list,” said Putnam.
The man who has been the looming figure in this Republican primary – President Donald Trump was also a topic. Trump has endorsed DeSantis and campaigned for his lastweek in Tampa.
Putnam accused the President of putting his “thumb on the scale” to impact the election. He also said Trump’s campaign in 2016 was full of specific goals while DeSantis has yet to develop policy positions on significant issues. “He (Trump) ran on a plan. You’re running on an endorsement,” Putnam said as he looked at DeSantis. “It takes more than that to serve 21 million people, in the third largest state. You have to know and share with the people so that they can judge what it is that you hope to accomplish if you’re so fortunate to be elected governor.”
DeSantis said he was proud to have Trump’s support and hit Putnam for not supporting Trump in the 2016 general election only now to embrace the President for political purposes. “This is inauthentic,” DeSantis said. “This is a career politician trying to tell you what you want to see and it’s not coming from the heart. That’s what he has to do. He’s already proven he will say and do anything – in terms of millions of dollars of fake ads – to get elected. It’s not working but that’s what he’s willing to do.”
Putnam continued to accuse DeSantis of running his campaign out of Washington and labeled him the “Seinfeld candidate.” Putnam said, “The campaign is being run out of a studio, they have a smattering of celebrity guest appearances, and it’s all about nothing. But, unlike Seinfeld, it’s not funny.”
Congressman DeSantis received the loudest applause of the night when he embraced his outsider status in this campaign. “I’m willing to stand up. I’m willing to make tough decisions that are not going to sit well with entrenched interests but at the end of the day, you’ve got to be willing to take the fire if you’re going to be governor. And you’ve got to stand with the taxpayers of this state and that’s exactly what I’ll do.”
Commissioner Putnam needed to inflict damage to DeSantis’ campaign with just 20 days before voting ends in the August 28 primary. It may, however, be too little, too late. Public polls show DeSantis leading Putnam by double digits. A private statewide poll FLA News obtained Wednesday showed DeSantis doubling Putnam 52% to 26%.
Tuesday night’s debate on the campus of Jacksonville University may have been the last suspenseful moment of this Republican campaign for governor.