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Five takeaways from Florida's fiery final gubernatorial debate

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© Getty Five takeaways from Florida's fiery final gubernatorial debate

By Max Greenwood, The Hill
DAVIE, Fla.

Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis engaged in a volatile and often angry war of words in Florida on Wednesday, ending the final debate in the state's gubernatorial race before Election Day on a bitter note.

Even as the candidates faced questions about widening political divisions - underscored by recent bomb threats against multiple prominent Democrats - Gillum and DeSantis traded personal attacks and accusations, touching on everything from race to corruption allegations.

But the debate also touched on policy disagreements on issues ranging from gun control to environmental protections, allowing the candidates a final chance to make their cases to voters side by side.

Here are five takeaways from the final Florida gubernatorial debate:

It was the most bitter exchange yet

In the first debate, both Gillum and DeSantis traded jabs. In the second debate, they tried to knock one another out.

The full force of the partisan and ideological division present in Florida's gubernatorial race were on display on Wednesday night. But policy wasn't at the center of the disagreements.

Instead, the candidates opted for more personal attacks, focusing on issues like an FBI probe into suspected corruption in Tallahassee City Hall or allegations of DeSantis harboring racist views.

At times, the candidates butted heads with the debate's moderator, news anchor Todd McDermott. Gillum demanded more time to respond to DeSantis' attacks and, at one point, DeSantis lashed out against what he called the media's attempt to "smear" him.

Florida's gubernatorial race has already brought to the forefront the intense political divisions at play nationwide. But Wednesday's debate - the last major debate before Election Day in the state - appeared to be a tipping point for Gillum and DeSantis.

FBI probe puts Gillum on the defensive

It didn't take long before Gillum was charged with addressing the ongoing FBI investigation into possible corruption in Tallahassee City Hall

And that's not surprising, seeing as how the debate came a day after various media outlets reported that the Tallahassee received a ticket to the musical "Hamilton" from an undercover FBI agent whom he believed was a local developer.

The FBI probe has loomed over Gillum's campaign for months. But he's begun facing more and more questions about it amid attacks from Republicans.

Gillum has insisted that he's not a target of the the probe. On Wednesday, he sought to downplay the weight of the investigation, saying there were bigger issues to deal with in Florida.

"I take responsibility for not having asked more questions," he said. "But let me tell you, I'm running for governor. In the state of Florida we have 99 issues. And tickets to Hamilton ain't one of them."

DeSantis, however, repeatedly asserted that Gillum himself is under investigation.

"He wants you believe that he's not under investigation," DeSantis said. "Why would an undercover FBI agent posing as a contractor give you a ticket to Hamilton?"

Race takes center stage

Since the first days of his general election bid against Gillum, DeSantis has struggled to move past allegations of racist behavior and remarks.

And the issue of race surfaced once again on Wednesday.

From the first question of the debate, DeSantis drew criticism from Gillum for race-related controversies, like the former congressman's suggestion in August that voters should not "monkey this up" by voting for Gillum in November.

"I'm not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist," Gillum said at one point. "I'm simply saying the racists believe he's a racist"

The talk of race appeared to get under DeSantis' skin. Asked by the moderator about his past comments praising a conservative writer who had made racist remarks, the former Republican representative lashed out.

"How the hell am I supposed to know every statement that somebody makes?" DeSantis shouted, prompting gasps and jeers from the audience.

"As a governor i will represent all the people. Everyone will get a fair shake," he added. "But I am not going to bow down to the altar of political correctness. I'm not going to let the media smear me."

Immigration becomes a flashpoint

Immigration sparked a heated exchange on Wednesday after DeSantis suggested that a Gillum had let his "dislike" of Trump to cloud his views on federal immigration enforcement.

"He will support sanctuary cities. He said he will not cooperate with Donald Trump's [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]," DeSantis said. "He hates Donald Trump so much."

"Why would you allow your dislike for the president to knowingly put communities at risk?"

The debate over immigration has periodically emerged as a flashpoint in the Florida governor's race. Gillum's past call to abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in its current form has fueled intense attacks from the GOP.

DeSantis, on the other hand, has been steadfast in his support for Trump's immigration agenda, including the president's proposal to build a massive wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Gillum expanded on his call on Wednesday, saying that ICE should be absorbed into the Justice Department as a matter of practicality.

"Immigration and border control has an important job to do and we ought to empower them to do that job," he said, arguing that merging the agency with the Justice Department would allow it to more effectively combat drug and human trafficking.

Climate change is a hot topic

Climate change and environmental issues are playing an outsize role in Florida's political races this year and Wednesday's debate was no exception.

DeSantis sought to defend his record on the environment, touting himself as the only candidate who "fought Big Sugar," which the candidate has derided for contributing to Florida's toxic algae crisis.

"They came after me in my primary with millions and millions of dollars attacking be every which way," he said.

But Gillum worked to undermine DeSantis' boasts, saying that the former Republican representative has no record to back up his assertions and that he had, in fact, taken campaign money from "the biggest polluters" in the state.

"The saying goes the proof is always in the eating, right?" Gillum said. "That you got to test it all the way out."

The two candidates also talked about the need to protect Florida's environment in different terms. DeSantis warned that the state would "lose our status as a tourist destination" if it failed to clean up its waters and fight environmental degradation.

Gillum, on the other hand, has talked up the potential for Florida to play a leading role in the clean energy sector.

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Politics - U.S. Daily News: Five takeaways from Florida's fiery final gubernatorial debate
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