TALLAHASSEE — With polls showing a dead heat in the governor’s race, Republican candidate Rick Scott and Democratic nominee Alex Sink are preparing to take the stage in what could be a crucial pair of debates.
Sink, the state’s elected chief financial officer, and Scott, a former health-care executive, are set to face off Wednesday in a statewide debate that will air on WJXT in Jacksonville. The two will meet again the following Monday in a nationally televised debate broadcast by CNN.
Both will be trying to find a decisive edge in a governor’s race that polls have repeatedly shown to essentially a dead heat. The candidates have already held one Spanish-language debate that was seen in select markets in Florida. Observers say the widely available debates could make a big difference because of the closeness of the race.
Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said voters sometimes use debates to get more of a general feel for a candidate that can sway their decisions.
“They want to see how (the candidates) react to each other and heated exchanges,” MacManus said. “They want to see the ideas they have.”
Whether the debates will spend sufficient time on issues amid a campaign that has mostly featured back-and-forth charges about the candidates’ backgrounds, some are skeptical.
“I’ll say, ‘hopefully,’” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. “Theoretically, that’s what debates are supposed to be about.”
There are signs that more discussion about the candidates’ background is ahead.
“In the next two debates, Alex Sink will continue to highlight the clear choice between her record of honesty and integrity as a respected Florida business leader and Rick Scott’s record of fraud, corruption, and hiding the truth,” Sink spokeswoman Kyra Jennings said in an e-mail.
That would be in line with the Spanish-language debate, in which the candidates assailed each other. Scott campaign spokeswoman Bettina Inclan claimed victory for Scott afterward.
“It is obvious that Tallahassee insider Alex Sink represents the wrong direction for Florida,” Inclan said in an e-mail that also called the CFO an “Obama liberal.”
Jewett said that the exchange of accusations has to come up, saying it would be “negligent” of moderators to ignore the charges. It also gives Scott and Sink a chance to respond.
Scott also needs to show that his lack of experience in government doesn’t mean he lacks the knowledge needed to be governor.
“I think he needs to show a command of facts and policies,” Jewett said.
As for Sink, MacManus said she needs to emphasize character issues with polls showing that voters give her an advantage in that department.
“She wants to reinforce the idea ... that more people see her as a person of integrity,” MacManus said.
MacManus said the candidates would also be wise to focus on the economy, jobs, taxes, home foreclosures and the overall role of government, though that would be a change from the tenor of the campaign so far.
“Their television ads suggest that nothing matters except their business backgrounds,” she noted.