Voters were losers in debate

Published October 31, 2006

The last debate between Florida's candidates for governor Monday night was supposed to give voters one final opportunity to size up Charlie Crist and Jim Davis on the key issues facing this state. Instead it was hijacked by a cable television windbag and a third-party candidate who had no business being on the same stage.

Moderator Chris Matthews of MSNBC's Hardball apparently forgot it was a debate between candidates for governor, not Congress. He wasted most of the hour by asking questions about the war in Iraq, a New Jersey Supreme Court decision on gay marriage and the Mark Foley sex scandal. He rehashed the 2000 election. He burned up time demanding that Crist label himself as a fiscal conservative or a social values conservative (fiscal) and trying to get Davis to declare himself a liberal (he's not). Matthews got bogged down in a lengthy discussion over a paper trail for electronic voting machines, and he apparently didn't realize there is a property insurance crisis in this state until he was being driven in from the airport. This is what happens when a Washington television personality brings a national agenda to Florida's race for governor.

To complete the circus, Reform Party candidate Max Linn found a friendly judge to order that he be allowed on stage. All Linn did was contribute to the chaos by shouting and interrupting other speakers. This wasn't good television by Entertainment Tonight standards, much less a useful discussion for voters who will go to the polls a week from today.

Oh, there were some moments. Crist noted during the unnecessary discussion about the New Jersey court's decision on gay marriage that he is divorced. Davis, in between mentioning his wife and kids, pulled out the FCAT sheet for one of his children and was slapped down by Matthews for using a prop. Crist, the Republican nominee, gave Gov. Jeb Bush an A and President Bush a B. Davis, the Democratic nominee, gave the governor an overall C (but a D-minus on education) and the president an F. That isn't going to be particularly helpful for voters making up their minds in a race that appears to be tightening a bit.

This debate should have been a calm, thorough discussion about the top issues facing Florida: taxes, education and, of course, homeowners insurance. There are clear differences between the candidates, and voters won't learn the specifics from distorted television ads.

Crist embraces the Bush administration's school grading system and standardized testing. He is open to fine-tuning the FCAT but hasn't been specific. Davis would end letter grades for schools and overhaul the FCAT to make it more of a diagnostic test. It is a thoughtful overhaul that does not scrimp on accountability but addresses the concerns of families and teachers who are tired of the obsession with standardized testing.

Crist and Davis also have starkly different approaches to taxes. The attorney general from St. Petersburg wants to enable counties to double the homestead exemption, and he would make the Save Our Homes tax break portable. Neither helps the owners of businesses and investment properties, who are hurting the most from huge increases in property assessments. Davis, the Tampa congressman, would address the problem directly by limiting assessment increases to 10 percent for owners of businesses and investment properties. He would cut state-required school property taxes by $1-billion, putting a stop to shifting the financial burden from the state to local property owners.

While neither candidate has the perfect solution to the property insurance crisis, voters did not get a chance to learn a thing about the proposals Monday night.

Unfortunately, the issues that matter most got the least attention. Instead, Matthews wasted time asking about the "big crime problem down here" at a time when the crime rate is at its lowest level in three decades. The debate was a missed opportunity for Crist, whose footing has seemed a bit unsure in the last week. It was a missed opportunity for Davis, who needed to build more momentum with another strong performance.

But the real losers were the voters, who lost their best chance to reach their own conclusions based on substance instead of TV ads. For that, we can thank Chris Matthews.