By Letitia Stein
TAMPA Fla. (Reuters) - The Republican and Democratic candidates in Florida's dead-heat race for the governorship squabbled on Thursday over what caused the bizarre delay of a live televised debate that has been dubbed "Fangate."
Famously purple in presidential races, the country's largest swing state has been a bleak off-year battleground for Democrats in the two decades since the party last won a governor's race.
At the debate on Wednesday night, Republican Governor Rick Scott was missing as Democrat Charlie Crist took the stage alone. Scott has since disputed the explanation by debate moderators that he refused to come out over a disagreement about a small, cooling fan under Crist's podium, near his feet.
But Scott's campaign later sent an email to supporters saying the campaign "was not notified" Crist had taken the stage and last heard that his opponent was "in an 'emergency meeting' with debate organizers pleading for his precious fan."
"Charlie was throwing a fit," Scott told reporters on Thursday morning, in a video clip mockingly circulated by Florida Democrats. "He was saying he wasn't going to show up, so we waited to see if he was going to show up."
At the debate, a cool-looking Crist looked amused as the television cameras panned down to the fan whirling at his feet in a video posted to YouTube by Democrats, who hope to reclaim the governor's mansion.
After Scott finally took the stage, both candidates traded pointed barbs while #fangate trended on Twitter.
Pundits opined that the perceived gaffe could be fatal to Scott, whose campaign has stagnated in the polls in recent weeks while Crist appeared to gain traction.
The fan has been an ubiquitous campaign accessory for Crist, the state's former Republican governor who is now seeking the job back as a Democrat.
Since 2009, a Twitter account called "Charlie Crist's Fan" has posted, and dubbed itself as the politician's only friend: "I go wherever he goes. I keep him calm, cool and sweat-free."
On Thursday, the Scott campaign fired off another email under the subject line, "#CristHitstheFan."
"Charlie Crist is obsessed with his fan, and to be honest, it's getting a little weird," the campaign wrote. In a followup fundraising pitch, Crist wrote to supporters: "A little fan scaring away a sitting governor? Come on!"
Florida Democrats sent their own email blast, which included a Tweet from the Miami Herald's political reporter, who said Republican loyalists were quietly calling "Fangate" the moment that Scott lost the election.
(Additional reporting by David Adams in Miami; editing by Colleen Jenkins and G Crosse)