KISSIMMEE, Fla. – Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam made jabs at U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis about the time the congressman has spent in Washington instead of in Florida on Thursday night during a live-televised debate that covered immigration, shootings and the potential for a trade war.
Putnam opened the debate between the two leading Florida GOP gubernatorial candidates at a resort near Orlando by "welcoming" DeSantis to Florida, tongue-in-cheek.
"What an exciting time to be in front of a live audience of a thousand Florida Republicans," Putnam said. "It's completely different than a Washington, D.C., studio, and I just want to say, 'Welcome to Florida, congressman.'"
DeSantis defended himself, saying he was doing his job and fulfilling his duty as a congressman by being in Washington.
During the debate televised live on Fox News, moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum asked about President Donald Trump's policies on immigration, trade and Russian meddling in the U.S. election in 2016.
DeSantis said he believes Russia tried to do "cyberstuff" during the election but that there was no collusion between Russia and Trump's campaign. Putnam said Trump "would more than hold his own" in a summit with Russia's leader.
"But I'm running a Florida-first campaign," Putnam said. "I care more about the schools in Washington County than what's going on in Washington, D.C."
On trade, DeSantis said Trump was trying to win concessions from other nations by threatening trade tariffs, even if retaliatory tariffs threaten to hurt some Florida industries, like citrus.
"Donald Trump wrote 'The Art of the Deal.' He knows how to negotiate," DeSantis said.
Putnam said "trade wars" hurting Florida began a quarter century ago with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"That has put Florida farmers and ranchers at a distinct disadvantage and put them out of business," Putnam said.
DeSantis called Putnam weak on immigration policy, but Putnam shot back that "Washington should do its job."
"They haven't passed an immigration bill," Putnam said.
When Putnam was asked about a previous statement that he is a "proud NRA sellout," in light of recent shootings, including at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland last February, he said it was "critically important" to defend Second Amendment rights while also protecting students in schools.
"Those two things aren't incompatible," Putnam said.
DeSantis said he would have fired Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, whose agency has been criticized for its response to the Parkland school shooting, if he were governor.
"What I would have done is I would have removed that sheriff from Broward County," DeSantis said. "He failed his citizens and he should have been removed."
"Sheriff Israel is under investigation and Sheriff Israel needs to go," Putnam said.
Putnam also defended his actions regarding an agency employee's failure to follow up on certain national background checks that could disqualify people from gaining permits to carry concealed weapons. He said he held the Department of Agriculture employee accountable and that she no longer works for the agency.
But DeSantis said Putnam failed as a leader in addressing the problem, accusing him of not disclosing it in a timely manner.
"You have to level with your constituents and tell them what happened and not try to cover it up," DeSantis said.
Trump has endorsed DeSantis, but Putnam has raised more money and is leading in recent polls months ahead of the August primary.
Asked if he was prepared to endorse Trump in 2020, Putnam answered, "Most assuredly, and I look forward to campaigning with him as governor of Florida."