Beware of Greeks Bearing Fans: the Florida Gubernatorial Debate

DAVIE, FL – Since the infamous monthlong recount following Election Day 2000, Florida has earned the unenviable reputation of being arguably the nation’s most bizarre state when it comes to elections. Last week was no exception, with the onset of what casual observers – which describes most voters – call “Fangate.”
Greek-American Charlie Crist, then a Republican, who was governor of Florida for a term, did not run for reelection in 2010. Rick Scott, also a Republican ran and won. Crist, now a Democrat, is challenging the incumbent Scott for the governorship. The reason Crist declined to run for reelection in 2010 is because he vied for the U.S. Senate instead, but he lost in the Republican primary to Marco Rubio, at the time of Rubio’s meteoric rise to national political prominence (currently, Rubio is mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2016). After losing to Rubio in the primary, Republican Crist stayed in the race, running as an Independent.
Within these past four years, then, Crist has gone from Republican to Independent to Democrat. The double switch prompted many to accuse Crist of being a political opportunist, but he defends himself in: The Party’s Over: How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat, a book he wrote that was released earlier this year.
If nothing else, Crist has shown he is a political survivor, but his party-switching pales in comparison to his masterful October 15 debate performance – before he even opened his mouth. It wasn’t Crist’s words that won the day, but rather a well-placed prop: a small electric fan underneath his podium.
In fairness to Crist, it was not – or at least, should not have been – entirely a surprise that a fan would emerge. The pre-debate rules indicated that fans were not permitted, but Crist’s campaign signed the agreement with an asterisk: that should conditions make it necessary, a fan would be provided.
The National Herald obtained copies of the document originally sent to both campaigns in July, describing the debate rules, and subsequent letters sent on October 6. The July letter stated that “candidates will be fitted with lavaliere microphones and will stand at podiums. Candidates may not bring visual aids, notes, or electronic devices to the debate, but will be provided with a pad and pen to take notes during the debate.” Clearly, that letter makes no mention of a fan or anything of the sort.
The October 6 letter, however, clearly specifies that “candidates may not bring electronic devices (including fans), visual aids or notes to the debate, but will be provided with a pad and pen.”
Because Crist is known to bring a personal fan to his public appearances as a recurring habit if not general rule – prompting the Miami Herald to refer to it as his “security blanket” – it is evident that the Scott campaign pressed for the fan’s exclusion.
TNH also obtained a copy of the signed agreement, that Crist specifically requested a fan if climate conditions necessitated it.
What followed on debate night was bizarre, indeed: Crist walked onto the stage and was asked about the fan – all before Scott even took the stage himself.
After a bizarre delay by Scott, which triggered concerns that he might balk on the debate altogether on principle, because of Crist’s unilateral decision to tailor the rules to his own liking, he finally relented and the debate began – with Crist’s fan at his podium.
At the end of the debate, Moderator Elliot Rodriguez asked: “Gov. Crist … why did you insist on bringing a fan here when your campaign knew this would be a contentious issue?” Crist replied: “Why not? You know, is there anything wrong with being comfortable? I don’t think there is. Having compassion with other people.”
Rodriguez then asked Scott: “why the delay coming out over a fan?” Categorically denying that his delay had anything to do with the fan, Scott replied: “I waited till we figured out if he’s going to show up. He said he wasn’t going to come to the debate. So why come out until he’s ready?”
As debate history indicates, perception is paramount. And in this debate, hardly anyone remembers the substance of the discussion. Instead, it is all about two points around the same issue: Crist brought a fan to the debate, and Scott objected to it. At least in the immediate post-debate period, it is Scott who, to his detriment, appears petty.
Interestingly, this debate conjures memories of a transformational debate – on the national level – the first between presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. Prone to excessive sweating, Nixon, by all accounts looked awful on television in the first ever major party presidential debate, which propelled Kennedy’s momentum and ultimately led to his narrow victory that November. Perhaps learning from Nixon’s downfall, Crist wants to ensure he is not caught sweating on television.
Who is right in all of this? Should Crist be entitled to a fan? Is Scott being petty by not allowing it? After all, opponents of debaters with particular challenges traditionally accommodate them. Bill Clinton in 1996, for instance, allowed Bob Dole all necessary provisions to compensate for Dole’s paralyzed arm. Joe Lieberman and John Edwards in 2000 and 2004, respectively, complied with Dick Cheney’s request in the vice presidential debates of those years to sit in a chair rather than stand at a podium, respecting the fact that Cheney had a heart condition.
Whether or not Fangate ultimately favors Crist, or Scott, remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: round one of the political maneuvering goes to the Greek.


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