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Pow! Bam! Debates spirited but informative

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist
Published August 24, 2006

Holy cow! Who knew that Jim Davis could throw a punch? For Rod Smith, it must have been kind of like getting socked in the jaw by a smirking Opie.

Davis and Smith, the two Democrats running for governor, debated Wednesday night on statewide public television.

Davis seemed to be the aggressor against Smith, a state senator from Gainesville, accusing him of being too close to special interests while serving in the Florida Legislature.

Davis hammered at, among other things, higher local telephone rates and a bill slowing the Everglades cleanup. He talked about the sleazy support for Smith's campaign - in the form of anti-Davis attack ads - from U.S. Sugar and agribusiness. Smith pointedly refused to disavow the attacks.

"This campaign," Davis concluded, "is about who's going to be on our side."

Smith fought back, but it seemed kind of like he was going through the motions: Davis has missed a lot of roll-call votes in Congress, which Smith insisted is the same as "not showing up for work." (I think that might depend on whether the vote is to declare World War III or National Rutabaga Week.)

And I was delighted that Davis brought up our old friend, the Legislature's 2003 law that jacked up telephone rates. I couldn't believe Smith had the gall to try to defend it. Smith fell back on the old line that the law didn't "raise" rates, it just ordered the Public Service Commission to, you know, kind of look at them.

Smith and Davis agreed on most other stuff, including relying less on the FCAT and supporting the death penalty, higher teacher salaries and better universities. Check.

It was the second spirited debate in the Florida governor's race in as many days. The two Republicans, Charlie Crist and Tom Gallagher, did a great job Tuesday night.

Gallagher had two basic attacks against front-runner Crist: that Crist is more socially liberal and that many of Crist's policy positions are "bumper-sticker" answers.

On the social front, they both said they oppose gay adoption and same-sex marriage. The big differences were that Crist said he supports stem-cell research and civil unions.

Gallagher said Crist would make Florida "as liberal as Vermont." I haven't been to Vermont, but I assume he means that in a bad way.

"I guess I have a bit more of a 'live and let live' attitude than my opponent does," Crist replied on the topic of civil unions. He said same-sex partners should be able to sign contracts protecting their right to visit each other in the hospital or to make funeral plans.

Crist ducked a direct question from Gallagher: If Roe vs. Wade were repealed, would Crist support a law to ban abortions in Florida? Crist called himself "pro-life" but wouldn't say.

But I thought their differences were more interesting on the policy front, where Gallagher kept finding fault with Crist's proposals.

Gallagher advanced a pretty major idea. He would cap the rate of growth of local government spending in Florida, which would be a huge change.

Crist, instead, wants to double Florida's homestead exemption from $25,000 to $50,000 and make the state's "Save Our Homes" cap on property values portable. Gallagher argued that this wouldn't help non-homestead Floridians - renters and business owners.

Both Republicans claimed the legacy of Gov. Jeb Bush. Both said they support continued use of FCAT testing. Gallagher wants to tweak the class-size amendment passed by Florida voters; Crist says the voters have spoken.

On insurance, Crist wants to force companies that sell property insurance in other states to sell it here; Gallagher says that's too simplistic.

Gallagher was not so impressive when he was asked about the ethics case against him for buying insurance stocks while he was insurance commissioner. He kind of, sort of said he shouldn't have done it, but complained with self-pity that the complaint was "a campaign strategy." Crist overplayed the point in turn by waving around documents from the case, which looked cheesy.

In general, I thought Crist "won" the debate by not making any missteps, which is the front-runner's main job. He has matured well as a candidate and as a politician.

Gallagher was best when he was pointing out problems with Crist's policies. It made me wonder again whether Gallagher should have sought Florida's highest office on the strength of policy and competence, instead of morphing himself into a social moralist. But he has made his choice. In 12 days, the voters will make theirs.

[Last modified August 24, 2006, 01:15:19]

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Howard Troxler: Pow! Bam! Debates spirited but informative
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