If there’s one thing Charlie Crist is afraid of, it’s sweating in public.
Understand that, and what happened on a Fort Lauderdale governor’s debate stage this week before a live television audience might make a bit more sense.
Viewers who tuned in Wednesday night to watch Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Crist (once a Republican, now a Democrat) instead saw an empty stage, with moderators explaining about “an extremely peculiar situation.” Within seconds Crist strode out and spent the next several minutes lamenting Scott’s absence, and how it was ridiculous to argue over the fan at the base of Crist’s podium when Florida faced so many important issues, before Scott finally joined him and the debate began.
But what TV viewers didn’t know was that Scott’s campaign was so agitated about the fan that it was demanding the event be canceled and that the TV station providing the live feed not proceed with the broadcast.
“Why? Who knows? Your guess is as good as mine,” Wendy Walker, head of one of the debate’s co-sponsors, Leadership Florida, told NPR Friday. “They had a bee in their bonnets about the fan…. I said, guys, do you want the story to be the fan?”
Which is pretty much what happened. Florida media covered actual issues raised in the debate, but nationally the story was the fan. On Twitter it was #Fangate and #Fantrum and #Fanghazi. Predictably, it even made The Daily Show.
Scott campaign spokesman Greg Blair said Scott never refused to participate in the debate, and said his delay was based on “confusion” caused by Crist’s violating the no-fan rules. Scott was waiting to see the resolution when he saw the debate had started without him, Blair said.
Crist’s reliance on fans is well known to followers of Florida politics. He hates the idea of sweating at a public event, and for years as education commissioner, attorney general and eventually governor insisted on having a portable fan at his feet as he would give a speech or participate in debates.
Crist’s debate adviser, former state senator and federal prosecutor Dan Gelber, said the debate rules originally sent to the campaign on July 22 banned electronic devices but made no mention of fans. A later version sent out Oct. 6 did prohibit fans, and Gelber said he hand-wrote an addendum saying Crist could have a fan if “temperature issues” made one necessary. He submitted that to organizers and was told it was acceptable, he said.
And that was where things stood until the night of the debate. When Crist went out to test his microphone, he said he felt too warm under the TV lights and requested a fan, which the campaign then set out and plugged in.
It was not long before Brett O’Donnell, Scott’s debate coach, noticed and raised objections. O’Donnell is a giant in the Republican campaign world – the one-time debate coach at Liberty University has tutored George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney as they prepared for presidential debates.
On Wednesday night, Gelber said, just minutes before the scheduled start time, O’Donnell pointed at the fan tucked beneath Crist’s podium and made a big sweeping arm gesture, like an umpire calling someone out, then turned and stomped off.
“The Scott folks went literally berserk. They were just running around screaming at everybody, the station, the people who were hosting the event, Leadership Florida, just going literally nuts, saying they were going to cancel the debate,” Gelber said. “It was just the most bizarre thing we had ever seen.”
Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association released a statement the day after the debate explaining that the rules banned fans, and the temperature on stage was cool enough not to require them. But Walker acknowledged that the interpretation of “temperature issues” was a subjective one, and that she personally was too busy dealing with a third-party candidate’s legal challenge to worry about the possibility of a standoff over a fan.
“Honestly, at the time, it didn’t seem like it was going to be a big deal,” Walker said.
Scott campaign spokesman Blair said the governor is moving past the fan incident and will be talking about Florida’s problems in the remaining days of the race.
The Crist camp, however, seems okay if people think about Wednesday night just a bit longer. The Florida Democratic Party on Friday released an ad featuring the fan.
S.V. Dáte edits congressional and campaign finance coverage for NPR’s Washington Desk.