By BRANDON LARRABEE
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
After tens of millions of dollars worth of television commercials and the slinging of massive amounts of mud, could the Florida gubernatorial election come down to an electric fan?
In the latest strange chapter in the always-fascinating politics of Florida, Gov. Rick Scott skipped the first few minutes of a televised debate Wednesday with his Democratic challenger, former Gov. Charlie Crist, because of the presence of an electric fan at Crist's feet.
Actually, debate organizers were unsure at first whether either of the candidates would be on stage, though Crist strode out as moderator Eliott Rodriguez tried to explain the situation to the audience.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we have an extremely peculiar situation right now," Rodriguez said.
Scott eventually came out as well, but the incident brought a whole new meaning to the "spin room," where surrogates for the two candidates gathered and tried to make sense of a nonsensical turn of events.
The Crist camp's description of events: They had learned that after an event last week featuring CNN anchor Candy Crowley, the stage at the remodeled venue, Bailey Hall at Broward College, was described as uncomfortably warm. Debate organizers promised to fix the problem --- with fans if necessary.
"They said they were going to fix it," said former state Sen. Dan Gelber, who signed the debate agreement on Crist's behalf. "And they said
if they don't, they'll have something available."
The Crist campaign quickly produced the copy of the rules they signed, where Gelber had written in "with understanding that the debate hosts will address any temperature issues with a fan if necessary."
But Scott's supporters countered that the fan violated the rules of the debate, and Rodriguez said in the opening moments of the debate that a copy of the rules showed to him by the incumbent's campaign indicated the fan shouldn't be on the stage.
In fact, Scott's camp said, it was Crist who threatened to pull the plug on the event if the fan was not plugged in.
"When I got here today for this debate, I was told that Charlie Crist was going to cancel the debate, because unless there was a fan on that stage, he would not come out," said U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. "So I think that Governor Scott was waiting to see if Charlie would actually pull that off or not."
Scott and others said he didn't immediately take the stage at the beginning of the debate because he wanted to make sure Crist did.
Crist's nearly ubiquitous fan was already famous, memorialized by a Twitter account and obsessed over by MSNBC host Chris Matthews. Rubio said that "a similar incident" happened in a 2010 Senate debate between himself, former Democratic Congressman Kendrick Meek and Crist, then running as an independent, when Meek complained about the fan.
Both campaigns tried to blow off the issue Wednesday night, but only after scoring a few political points from it.
"What looked bad was this bizarre incident tonight where Charlie Crist insisted on ignoring the rules of a debate, just like he's ignored the rules time and again when it comes to telling the truth about what he stands for on issue after issue," Rubio said.
"Charlie Crist can bring his fan, microwave, and toaster to debates --- none of that will cover up how sad his record as governor was compared to the success of Rick Scott," Scott campaign manager Melissa Sellers said in a statement issued after the debate, an apparent effort at damage control. "Crist should buy a fan for the 832,000 Floridians who lost their jobs while he was governor."
Crist's campaign said Scott was afraid to address issues.
"I think it's outrageous that he's worried about that when he's not worried about a million Floridians without health insurance, he's not worried about teachers, he's not worried about my kid who goes to a public school," said Annette Taddeo, Crist's running mate. "That's what he should be worried about, not about a fan."
Both candidates addressed the fan flap near the end of the debate, with Crist defending having his cooling system on hand.
"Is there anything wrong with being comfortable?" Crist said. "I don't think there is."
Once the debate did begin, the candidates continued the squabbling that started in television commercials and carried through a debate last week at Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo.
"That's not true," Scott said at one point during a discussion of insurance rates.
"Oh, it's true," Crist shot back.
Crist once again brought up a years-old deposition in a civil case where Scott invoked his right not to incriminate himself 75 times.
"That is not the kind of leadership that Florida deserves," Crist said.
In response to a question about gay marriage, Scott noted Crist's evolving position on the issue --- part of a narrative seeking to portray Crist as a habitual flip-flopper.
"We don't actually know what Charlie believes on this issue, because he's taken every side of this issue," Scott said.
But most of the talk on social media and at the debate venue concerned the fan – and whether or not it will make any difference.
"It's funny, but in terms of pushing people, I doubt it," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. "But it may make them watch the next one."