Politics & Government

Tense exchanges, zingers and clear differences in debate between Gov. Scott, Charlie Crist

MIRAMAR -- Charlie Crist is the "zero-wage governor."

Rick Scott raised special-interest "Rick Taxes."

In a series of tense exchanges, the two leading candidates for governor zinged each other early and often in their first televised debate Friday, on Spanish-language Telemundo, and repeated the same message: The other guy is worse than me.

From beginning to end, the governor and former governor said more about each other and less about what each would specifically do if given four more years in

the governor's office. Both candidates misled at times. Outside, Libertarian Adrian Wyllie protested he was shut out of the debate.

Clear differences emerged: Medicaid expansion, raising the minimum wage, the Cuba embargo, medical marijuana or the role of a governor in creating jobs.

Polls show a high percentage of voters see both men in an unfavorable light.

"Why do you think that voters have that negative impression of you two?" moderator Marilys Llanos, a WSCV-Telemundo 51 political reporter, asked Crist.

Crist blamed Scott.

"It's unfortunate," Crist said. "Sadly, my opponent began a barrage of advertising in March of this year, almost all of it negative, and that's unfortunate."

Scott, asked the same question, didn't initially answer it and instead discussed the jobs created since he assumed office in 2011. Llanos pressed Scott for an answer -- the first of three times the moderators asked him to respond directly.

"My opponent is a mudslinger. And that's what he does," Scott said, pointing out that Crist, when he was a Republican, had bashed Democrats such as former President Bill Clinton.

In his response, Crist said Floridians "deserve to hear what we want to do in a positive way." Crist, who seldom spoke in positive terms after that, then talked about raising the state's $7.93 hourly minimum wage. The issue is potentially potent. Polls indicate it's popular with the Florida electorate. A Latino Decisions survey of Florida Hispanic voters released Thursday said they back it by an even greater degree, 64-15.

Scott pointed to a Congressional Budget Office report that indicated a minimum-wage boost could be a job killer. Scott, who has recently avoided commenting on the issue, was pressed for a straight answer.

"I don't support losing those jobs, I don't support raising the minimum wage and losing those jobs," Scott said. "I want more jobs and better-paying jobs."

Scott followed by pointing to job losses under Crist: "Charlie should be known as the zero wage governor, all right? 832,000 people had a job the day Charlie took office. The day he left office, they made zero wages."

Crist said the job losses were beyond his control.

"I was not personally responsible for the global economic meltdown," Crist said. "You're not responsible for the national economic recovery. The people are."

If elected governor, Crist said, he would expand Medicaid, the health-insurance program for low-income people. If need be, he said, he would take executive action if the Legislature failed to act -- something that would likely get him sued.

"Rick Scott announced that he thought expanding Medicaid might be okay. Then he heard from the Tea Party base and he kind of crawled back in and wouldn't talk about it anymore," Crist said. "He talks about people who talk about things and don't do anything."

Scott said Crist was the one who was all talk.

"First off, Charlie had the opportunity to do Medicaid expansion when he was governor," Scott said. "Obamacare passed. He didn't. He sat on his hands."

Scott's statement glossed over the history of Medicaid expansion. It was supposed to happen automatically by January 2014 under Obamacare, which passed March 23, 2010 - right in the middle of the last legislative session Crist presided over as governor. At that time, Crist was a Republican U.S. Senate candidate who opposed Obamacare. And he didn't ask the Legislature to instantly expand Medicaid eligibility. Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Medicaid expansion was optional.

Scott initially opposed expansion. Then he supported it. Then he backed off it. Scott also signed legislation that kept insurance regulators from temporarily reviewing Obamacare health-insurance rates. And he signed other pro-industry legislation concerning property insurance.

But Crist falsely claimed Scott "actually signed a bill this year that says the office of insurance regulation can't regulate insurance." Crist, however, accurately noted that property-insurance rates were lower on his watch than Scott's.

Crist claimed people are paying more in "Rick Taxes" now through their utility bills as well. But Scott pushed back by citing statistics that, he said, showed rates have fallen. Scott also pointed out that Florida's Public Service Commission, which oversees utilities, has been stocked with Crist appointees.

Crist, too, tried to spin when asked about child deaths at the Department of Children and Families.

"We didn't cut funding," Crist said. "We were facing a global economic meltdown. We had to deal with tough issues during a tough time."

But Crist and the Legislature did reduce spending at the agency. So did Scott at one point.

Asked about a proposed constitutional amendment calling for medical marijuana, Crist said he supported it. Scott, who pointed out he signed a limited medical-marijuana bill, said he was opposed.