Defiant as ever, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis fiercely defended his response to the COVID-19 pandemic and his focus on divisive cultural issues in his first and only reelection debate Monday, as Democrat Charlie Crist accused his Republican rival of being distracted by his national political ambitions.

Suggesting DeSantis was already focused on running for president, Crist pressed DeSantis on whether he would commit to serving out his second full four-year term. DeSantis didn’t directly answer the question.

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“The only worn-out old donkey I’m looking to put out to pasture is Charlie Crist,” DeSantis said of his 66-year-old opponent.

The Florida governor’s race may not be the nation’s most competitive election this fall, but it is no less consequential for DeSantis, a 44-year-old Harvard-educated Republican who could launch a presidential bid in the coming months. He hopes to use a strong reelection victory on Nov. 8 in Florida, a state he carried by just 32,000 votes out of 8.2 million cast four years ago, to demonstrate the breadth and strength of his support.

Monday’s debate also offered voters in Florida and beyond a rare opportunity to see DeSantis under pressure. Like many leading GOP officials across the nation this fall, he has largely avoided unscripted moments in recent months save for periodic interviews with friendly conservative media.

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DeSantis, a conservative firebrand, has delighted his supporters over and over with his extraordinary willingness to fight — whether facing political adversaries, the federal government or powerful Florida businesses. Crist, a former Republican governor who most recently served as a Democratic congressman, has tried to cast himself as a moderate alternative to lead the perennial swing state.

Yet DeSantis is leading many polls after signing into law divisive new restrictions on abortion, sex education and voting rights over his first four years in office.

The Republican governor was no less combative on the debate stage when Crist charged that DeSantis closed businesses and schools across the state early on during the pandemic.

“You’re the only governor in the history of Florida that ever shut down our schools,” Crist said. “You’re the one who’s the shutdown guy.”

DeSantis lashed back: “I kept the state open and I kept the state free,” he declared.

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Over and over, he attacked Crist as a close ally of President Joe Biden, who’s popularity is sagging in Florida and across the nation. “Charlie Crist has voted with Joe Biden 100% of the time,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis also defended his focus on divisive cultural issues, which have been a hallmark of his first term.

Crist has sought to focus voters’ attention on DeSantis’ conservative record — especially the law he signed in April banning abortions at 15 weeks of pregnancy, with no exceptions for rape or incest.

DeSantis has also signed into law a measure banning critical race theory and LGBTQ issues from many Florida schools. He led efforts to eliminate the Disney Corp.’s special tax status for condemning his so-called Don’t Say Gay bill. And in recent weeks, he flew dozens of Venezuelan immigrants from Texas to a small island off the Massachusetts coast to call attention to illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

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His critics are many, but DeSantis’ popularity has surged in Florida, and among Republicans across the nation, especially after he led the GOP’s resistance to the pandemic-related public health measures in 2020. He’s also benefited from a broader conservative shift in the state, a trend a decade in the making.

“It’s all about culture wars. It’s all about dividing us,” Crist said of DeSantis.