By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE Fla. (Reuters) - Florida Governor Rick Scott and former Governor Charlie Crist traded barbs on Tuesday over the minimum wage, the death penalty and racism in the Republican Party in the third and final debate of a close, bitterly contested race for governor.
Polls show the two in an expensive, neck-and-neck race for the country's largest swing state, saturated in recent weeks by tens of millions of dollars of negative TV advertising.
This time, both candidates took the stage on cue, avoiding another repeat of last week's embarrassing debate-delaying squabble over a cooling fan.
The debates have exposed a yawning political gulf between the two candidates on issues including healthcare, gay marriage, climate change, education and the minimum wage. As incumbent Scott is riding the wave of economic recovery while Crist, a former Republican who switched parties, faces the challenge of convincing Democrats he is one of them.
Crist repeatedly called the Republican incumbent “out of touch” with working Floridians, citing Scott’s waterfront mansion and personal jet. He recalled how a hospital group co-founded by Scott, Columbia/HCA, paid $1.7 billion in federal penalties for Medicare fraud during his tenure.
Scott cited his impoverished upbringing and jabbed at Crist’s “people’s governor” image by noting that Crist’s father was a doctor who raised his family comfortably in the Tampa Bay area.
“When you’re somebody like Rick Scott and you have a private jet, you fly 30,000 feet above people all the time, or you live in an oceanfront mansion, you’re out of touch and you’re not feeling what people are feeling at home,” Crist said during a discussion about raising Florida’s minimum wage.
Scott said that would cause about 50,000 layoffs, while Crist said “the people deserve it.”
In an hour-long debate aired by CNN from Jacksonville, Scott told of seeing his father unemployed and having his family car repossessed, while Crist "never had to worry about money in his whole life."
Crist fired back, "I know you’re worth about $100 million or $200 million today ... God bless you for that wealth, Rick, but the way you got it was pretty unsavory.”
Crist, who was elected governor as a Republican in 2006, said racist attacks on President Obama helped his decision to leave the party in 2010.
“Charlie, you are a divider,” Scott snapped back. “You are a mud-slinger, you are a divider."
(Editing by David Adams and David Gregorio)