Crist and Davis turn up the heat

Democrat Jim Davis and Republican Charlie Crist cover a lot of ground in their first televised debate in the gubernatorial race.

Published October 25, 2006

DAVIE — Jim Davis and Charlie Crist took turns playing the aggressor Tuesday night, savaging each other’s records in their first televised debate in the race for governor.

Davis, the Democrat who has been playing catchup against his Republican rival, showed a more aggressive side. He portrayed Crist as a symbol of the status quo of high student dropout rates and rising taxes, who has refused to stand up to the insurance industry as attorney general.

At least four times in the hour-long debate, Davis warned a restive electorate that Crist is the candidate who would “stay the course” at a time when change is needed.

“I will fight for change that is long overdue,” Davis said in his closing statement. “I will stand up to the very powerful insurance industry.”

Crist put Davis on the defensive twice — by citing his 16-year-old vote to deny relief to two wrongly imprisoned black men and by repeatedly pointing out Davis’ missed votes as a member of Congress.

The missed votes have been a staple of Crist’s TV ads, which show an empty chair careening across Capitol Hill and describe Davis as a “do nothing” congressman.

“It’s wrong,” Crist said of the missed votes, looking directly at Davis. “You violate a public trust when you do it. And you shouldn’t do that.”

Crist deflected Davis’ criticism of him as all talk and no action on key issues by bringing up the missed votes.
“I’ll come to work every day,” Crist said.

The live, one-hour debate from the campus of Nova Southeastern University was broadcast on Florida PBS stations and was moderated by Ray Suarez, senior correspondent of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

It was a substantive give-and-take with sharp disagreements on insurance, taxes, education, immigration and foreign policy.

The candidates called each other “Charlie” and “Jim,” but the tone was combative — reflecting the high stakes with early voting under way and the election  two weeks away.

Crist sought to undermine Davis’ support for Israel by asking him to apologize for a 2002 congressional trip that included a visit with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Davis defended the trip and noted that he accompanied Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton. Wexler is Jewish.
“You have no record of standing up for the state of Israel, but you stand here tonight with some self-serving political talk abut my record,” Davis told Crist.

In what may have been the debate’s most dramatic moment, Davis again acknowledged he was wrong in 1990 when, as a state legislator, he voted to deny compensation to Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee. The two black men spent 12 years in prison, and nine years on death row, for murders they did not commit.

“I agree with Charlie that I made a mistake,” Davis said, adding that Pitts was in the audience as a supporter.
On the Terri Schiavo case, Davis said he opposed government efforts to intervene in the case while Crist stayed silent. “Charlie Crist took the day off,” Davis said.

Crist responded: “It’s not the place for government, and that’s why I stayed out.”

On taxes, Crist emphasized his support for doubling the homestead exemption to $50,000, sidestepping Suarez’s question about whether it would “blow a hole” in the state budget.

On education, Davis said the FCAT should be a “learning tool,” not the primary instrument for measuring student performance. Crist noted that it was Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles who introduced the FCAT and said: “After all, life is a test.” Both men touted plans to pay teachers more money.

When Davis promised to veto what he called “special interest tax giveaways,” Crist pounced and told viewers Davis would bring back the intangibles tax on stocks and bonds — what Crist called a tax increase in the mold of “Walter Mondale.”

On the Save Our Homes tax cap, Davis stopped short of endorsing the politically popular but fiscally controversial “portability” so owners can move.

Crist embraced statewide portability and said it could be done within a year but did not explain in detail how he would do it.

The debate came at a pivotal moment in what has been a low-key race. A statewide poll by Quinnipiac University shows the race a statistical dead heat, with Crist at 46 percent and Davis at 44 percent. The poll was taken Oct. 18-22 and has a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points. Other polls for media outlets and business groups have showed Crist with a lead of between 10 and 14 points.

The first Crist-Davis debate almost had a third participant, Reform Party hopeful Max Linn of Treasure Island. But four hours before airtime, the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled that Linn had no right to take part, and technicians quickly removed a third lectern from the stage. The decision overturned a circuit judge’s Monday order approving Linn’s participation.

Crist and Davis have one more scheduled statewide TV debate, at 7 p.m. Monday on Florida’s NBC affiliate stations.

- Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.