Before moderating the third and final Florida gubernatorial debate between former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democrat, and current Republican Gov. Rick Scott, CNN's Jake Tapper told The Tampa Tribune he wanted to "knock them off their talking points" and focus on issues that received less attention in the first two debates, which were dominated by disagreement over job losses, education funding, and climate change—topics still central in Tuesday's debate.
Tapper delivered on that promise, and got into topics including the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the Ebola virus, the Cuba embargo, and the handling of sexual-assault cases involving football players at Florida State University.
One issue that didn't get any attention? Fangate.
CNN prohibited electric fans on stage at Tuesday's debate in Jacksonville after Crist's use of a fan onstage at an Oct. 15 debate sparked protest from Scott's campaign. Crist complied with CNN on Tuesday, and neither candidate mentioned the incident. In the end, the clear podiums and close quarters of the event—which was done without a studio audience—offered neither a refuge for a hidden cooling device, nor the presence of supporters to humor any mention of the episode.
Though Tuesday's hour-long debate charted some new ground, it's unlikely either candidate won any new fans from the testy exchange—pun intended.
Here are the key takeaways:
Crist Has Little to Gain from Distancing Himself From Obama.
Early voting started on Monday in Florida, and Crist, a recent convert to the Democratic Party, needs presidential-year-only voters who supported Obama in 2012 to turn out for him if he intends to defeat Scott in November. Crist has thus far been hesitant to be too critical of the president, and that was evident on Tuesday.
During the debate, Crist defended his bipartisan efforts to win federal stimulus money as governor during Obama's first term, continued his calls for Medicaid expansion, and defended Obama's efforts to pass immigration reform. Crist also gave the president solid marks on his handling of the Ebola crisis in the U.S., giving him an 8 out of 10. Crist said Obama had "a bit of a slow start" responding to the outbreak in West Africa, but believes now "we've hit our stride." He also cited racial undertones in Republican opposition to Obama as part of his reasoning for leaving the party, a belief he's expressed a number of times in the past.
Scott barely mentioned the president except when asked about immigration reform. His choice to skip efforts to tie Crist to Obama could be a missed opportunity in a state where the most recent Tampa Bay Times poll showed the president's state-level approval rating at a measly 38 percent.
Crist and Scott Dislike Each Other as Much as Voters Dislike Them.
If voters learned one thing from Tuesday's final debate, it's that they're not alone in their dislike for both candidates. Crist and Scott's mistrust and disdain for one another was visible throughout the entire event.
Scott called Crist a "mudslinger" and "divider," and Crist at one point accused Scott of outright lying when it came to his record on granting voting rights to nonviolent felons. The most common answer offered by either candidate all night was simply, "That's not true."
And how much exactly do Florida voters dislike both candidates? Take this from a recent Tampa Bay Times poll: Just about six in 10 voters said that the phrase "honest and ethical" does not apply to either of them.
It's Remarkable That Either Man Will Be Governor Come 2015.
In the end, Crist and Scott both carry so much baggage that it's truly remarkable either has a real shot at a second term in the governor's mansion.
Crist was predictably questioned about his party switch on Tuesday, and it will be a feat to convince voters after switching from being a Republican to an independent to a Democrat that he deserves to be their governor with an entirely different set of policy positions than when he left office in 2010.
It's also possible Rick Scott is one of the worst public speakers of any major statewide elected official in the country. While it's par for the course for candidates to avoid answering questions directly, Scott's halting speech and frequent verbal stumbles make it especially clear when he's doing so. A wide-eyed Scott dodged nearly every question posed to him in Tuesday's debate, and did so with his traditional and distinct unease.
Scott refused to offer any details on how he took responsibility after his former company, Columbia/HCA was charged a record-breaking $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud, and offered up what may prove to be one of the most pivotal moments of the debate when questioned on the death penalty. Under intense questioning from Crist, Scott indirectly admitted he granted Florida's Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi permission to delay an execution in 2013 so she could attend a campaign fundraiser, saying only, "she apologized."
It's a race to the bottom in Florida and Tuesday's debate did little to change that, leaving voters with just two weeks to decide who they can tolerate to run their pivotal swing-state for another four-year term.