ORLANDO — After taking some long-distance shots at each other over the past week, Republican Florida gubernatorial rivals Adam Putnam and Ron DeSantis kept it cordial on Saturday night when they appeared together in the same room for the first time.
Agriculture Commissioner Putnam and U.S. Rep. DeSantis didn’t actually share the stage at the conservative Florida Family Policy Council dinner. But first DeSantis and then Putnam each spent half an hour answering questions from Republican focus-group impresario and messaging maven Frank Luntz in front of about 450 members of the evangelical Christian group.
Luntz, who was applauded when he pledged not to ask any “gotcha” questions, urged the candidates to keep it civil during the primary and urged the crowd to be “referees of decency” in the GOP race.
But as dinner attendees left the ballroom at the Rosen Centre Hotel, they got to see a less-civil brand of primary politics in the hallway. Representatives of a Palm Beach County-based group, the National Liberty Federation, handed out anti-DeSantis material, including a depiction of the congressman with two faces and a collection of quotes suggesting he’s been inconsistent in supporting President Donald Trump.
DeSantis campaign manager Brad Herold called the material “false attacks.”
Putnam’s campaign said it had nothing to do with the literature and spokeswoman Amanda Bevis criticized “such repulsive attacks at what should have been a family-friendly event.”
During the event, Luntz asked each candidate to differentiate himself from his rival.
“He’s a good guy, I respect him,” DeSantis said of Putnam. As for a difference, he said, “I think the fact that I’ve done things like served in the military and served our country…I thought it was important that I be willing to put my money where my mouth was.”
DeSantis, who has a Harvard law degree, was a U.S. Navy JAG officer who was deployed to Iraq as an adviser to Navy SEALs and to the terrorist detention center at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
DeSantis drew the contrast with Putnam in more forceful terms a few days ago.
“He’s been in office since he was 22 years old and has been a career politician. When he was in his 20s, he was in elective office, when I was in my 20s I was serving in Iraq, in Guantanamo Bay, and our military. So, it’s a much different approach,” DeSantis said in a radio interview with conservative syndicated host John Fredericks. He also called Putnam a supporter of “amnesty” and generally weak on curbing illegal immigration in the radio interview.
Putnam, at a Forum Club of the Palm Beaches appearance last Monday, criticized DeSantis for skipping that event and said the frequent Fox News guest “can’t run for governor from a D.C.-based studio. You better be willing to get out amongst the people whose votes you’re asking for and look them in the eye and tell them your vision for Florida.”
Speaking after DeSantis on Saturday night, Putnam said he’s “grateful” for his rival’s military service and used subtler terms than he did at the Forum Club to describe their differences.
“The next governor of Florida needs to know Florida, needs to know every corner of our state, the diversity of our state, the challenges of our state…I believe that some of us really have a passion for state issues and some of us really have a passion for federal issues. I left Washington with my soul and my sanity still intact because I was more convinced than ever before that our founders had it right, that the states are the laboratories of democracy,” said Putnam, who served five U.S. House terms before returning to Florida in 2010 to run for agriculture commissioner.
Shortly before the dinner began, Putnam unveiled a “Florida Families First Agenda” that includes a pledge to “Fight for the life of the unborn by expanding services that help mothers successfully carry their pregnancy to term” and to “Remove activist judges who seek to protect abortions by legislating from the bench.”
Putnam also said he’d create an Office of Faith-Based and Community-Based Initiatives to empower churches and community organizations who provide disaster relief and other public assistance. And he promised to create an ombudsman in the Florida Department of Education to focus solely on helping families who opt to home school their children.
In response to a question from Luntz, Putnam said he’d sign a “heartbeat bill” banning abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which is generally six weeks after conception.
That drew condemnation from the Florida Democratic Party.
“Adam Putnam showed us who he was tonight: an anti-choice extremist hell-bent with taking away women’s health freedom. Putnam went full Trump tonight, promising to wage war on the judiciary and do everything he can to undermine women’s health,” said FDP spokesman Kevin Donohoe.
Luntz asked both Putnam and DeSantis how they’d respond to a hypothetical bill allowing transgender people to use the restroom of their choice.
“I would leave it as it is and stay out of that,” DeSantis said. When pressed about a hypothetical bill, DeSantis said he’d veto it, adding “Getting into the bathroom wars, I don’t think that’s a good use of our time.”
When Putnam was asked about such a bill, he said: “As a father…I am not going to sign a bill that allows men into my daughters’ restrooms.”
Both Putnam and DeSantis criticized a bill passed after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Parkland and signed by Gov. Rick Scott that, in addition to a variety of school safety and mental health measures, raises the age to buy a gun in Florida to 21 instead of 18 and imposes a three-day waiting period on most firearm purchases.
DeSantis applauded the school safety and mental health provisions in the bill, but said “I would have approached it differently because I think it scapegoated law-abiding citizens in terms of their Second Amendment rights.”
DeSantis also said that if he were governor he would have removed Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel over his agency’s handling of warning signs prior to the shooting.
Putnam also said he supported much of the post-Parkland bill, but would not have signed it because of its gun provisions.
“I don’t think it’s right to say to someone who’s 20 years that it’s OK to go to Iraq and Afghanistan and defend freedom and defend liberty with your life but you can’t go to the sporting goods store and buy a shotgun to go to a dove-shoot down the street,” Putnam said.