By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
Between answering questions on insurance and property taxes, the pair pepper each other with accusations of liberalism and ethical slips.
TAMPA — In the first statewide TV debate in the race for governor, Tom Gallagher tried to revive his candidacy Tuesday night by repeatedly criticizing front-runner Charlie Crist as a “liberal” who won’t tell voters the truth.
Gallagher, 62, who trails Crist in polls, endorsements and money, was clearly the aggressor in the Republican debate, broadcast live on Florida public TV stations and to a nationwide C-SPAN audience.
The chief financial officer warned viewers at the outset that Crist, 50, would take Florida down a “liberal risky path” of higher taxes, amnesty for illegal immigrants and same-sex civil unions. Gallagher also linked Crist to Howard Dean on gay rights and to John Kerry on abortion.
“The stakes could not be higher,” Gallagher said as the hourlong debate drew to a close. “Floridians stand to lose their conservative voice in this election.”
Crist seemed unflappable in the face of Gallagher’s withering criticism that he was ducking questions or trying to be all things to all people.
“I think it’s pretty obvious why he’s doing it,” Crist said. “Polling is not good. We’re coming in to the end of the election. This is the fourth time he’s run for governor. So here we are.”
With two weeks left before the Sept. 5 primary, Gallagher’s go-for-broke strategy on TV reflects his belief that the choice between himself and the attorney general is for “the soul of the Republican Party.”
Gallagher has staked his claim as the only true conservative in the race, while Crist has taken more moderate positions on such issues as class size reduction and gay civil unions.
But Gallagher was more aggressive than he has been at any point in the campaign. His criticism of Crist was tougher than any of his TV ads in recent weeks.
On taxes, Gallagher essentially called Crist a liar by claiming he has never supported a tax, when he did support a tax on sugar growers and rental cars.“He keeps telling you something that just isn’t true,” Gallagher said.
Crist has called both “fees” and has said the sugar tax would not be paid by consumers and the rental car tax could only be levied if voters said yes in a referendum.
On the issue of skyrocketing local property taxes, Gallagher said he would “attack spending” by cities and counties.
Crist said he supported a doubling of the homestead exemption to $50,000, subject to voter approval.
When Crist said he favored allowing homeowners to transport the Save Our Homes tax break to a new home, Gallagher said: “There’s another typical Charlie answer. Everything to everybody.”Gallagher shook his head in dismay, noting that a penny for prison construction that Gallagher once supported also included a requirement that it be approved by voters.
Crist fired back at Gallagher for downplaying the importance of a recent probable cause finding by the Commission on Ethics that Gallagher might have broken state law by owning stocks in companies regulated by his agency.
Holding up a copy of the ethics panel’s written order, Crist said: “For him not to admit that tonight is unbelievable. You can trust Charlie Crist.”
A spokesman for Gallagher, Albert Martinez, later complained that Crist violated the debate ground rules by bringing a “prop” into the studio.
On abortion, Crist declared himself “pro-life,” but added: “It’s also important to respect the views of others.”
Gallagher supports overturning the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973.
Crist says he opposes abortion but does not support repeal.
“You didn’t answer the question again,” Gallagher told Crist. “You gave a pro-choice answer. That’s why I say you’re pro-choice.”
On the subject of a proposed Constitutional ban on gay marriages, Gallagher accused Crist of flip-flopping on the issue by first saying a ban wasn’t needed and then signing a petition in support.
Crist, who also has said he does not oppose gay civil unions, said: “I guess I have a little bit more of a live-and-let-live attitude than my opponent does.”
The Republicans clashed over the costly voter-approved class-size amendment, with Gallagher saying he would “take it out” of the Constitution and Crist saying : “The time has come to move on.”
The debate format allowed the candidates to ask each other questions, and again Gallagher was more aggressive than Crist.
Gallagher took aim at Crist’s support for gay civil unions — which are legal in Vermont — and asked Crist why “Florida’s values should be the same as Howard Dean’s.”
Crist countered that his position was the same as President Bush’s, and “I think that’s a good place to be,” he said.
Gallagher once again accused Crist of mangling the record — that the president has said the question of gay civil unions should be decided by states.
Crist asked Gallagher why he opposed a doubling of the homestead exemption. Gallagher said Crist’s plan would help “a few” and would merely shift the tax burden to renters and business owners.
One of the few times the two combatants agreed was on the issue of whether gays should be allowed to adopt children.
Asked why gay foster parents should not be allowed to legally adopt the children in their care, Gallagher said he favored those children being in “a normal home,” which he defined as “a man and a woman in a marriage.”
Crist said he agreed: “The traditional family is the place to raise children.”
The debate, from the studios of WEDU-Channel 3 in Tampa, came a week after the Republican race took on more hostile tone. Gallagher fired first with an ad that charged Crist had a “liberal spending plan to raise state spending by billions.”
Crist fired back with an ad that was already produced, in which he criticized Gallagher for a 1994 TV ad that sought to link Gov. Jeb Bush to Fidel Castro.
In their closing statements, each candidate returned to his basic strategy. Gallagher again portrayed Crist as a liberal, and Crist stuck to his basic theme of less government.
“This race is between three liberals and one conservative — between three lawyers and one businessman,” Gallagher said, singling himself out.
Crist concluded, “I think it’s important that we have less taxing, less spending, less government and more freedom.”
Tonight, the leading Democratic candidates, U.S. Rep. Jim Davis and state Sen. Rod Smith, will debate in the same Tampa TV studio with a different group of questioners. Crist and Gallagher will debate for the second and final time at 8 p.m. Monday.
That debate will be broadcast on Florida’s NBC stations.
Steve Bousquet is at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.