(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, Pool)

By: FOX's Eben Brown

Debates between candidates for office are now political tradition in this nation. One might argue they're actually part of political sports: Candidates and managers agree to terms of a match, they train and then on fight night try to out with each other, out think one another, and wear the opponent down with verbal jabs and hooks.

But Wednesday night's debate between two candidates for governor in Florida grew a little too close to a real prizefight. And it wasn't clean boxing.

Neither Republican Ron DeSantis, a former Congressman, nor Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the Democrat's nominee, should be expected to pull punches; they're fighting for every vote. But when the politics of association guilt replace the technically perfect right cross, can the fight be won by decision?

It was such following the match at Broward College, in Davie, Fla. near Fort Lauderdale.

DeSantis has focused on an ongoing federal corruption probe into Tallahassee city government. Gillum insists he's not a target of that investigation yet DeSantis harps on the now well-documented valuable perks taken by Gillum from who turned out to be undercover FBI agents. The perks range from free tickets to Broadway's Hamilton to trips to Central America. Gillum on Wednesday accused DeSantis of taking campaign contributions from white supremacists. And Gillum swung closely to labeling his opponent similarly.

"He's using that money to fund negative ads," said Gillum from his podium. "Now, I'm not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I'm saying the racists believe he is a racist."

The line amused some, shocked others. It enraged DeSantis.

"I'm not going to sit here and take this nonsense from a guy like Andrew Gillum, who always plays the victim."

Gillum is African-America. DeSantis is white. It's not the first time race has played in the campaign. DeSantis was criticized by many for comments made critical of Gillum invoking monkeys, and has been plagued by groups outside his campaign making robo-calls mocking Gillum using stereotypical black vernacular.

What most people watching debates at home don't know, is that following the main event, in a private room, reporters are treated to other politicians expounding on what their ally on stage says. It's called a "spin room."

You know what we saw tonight?" asks former Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine, behind the rope line. "We saw Cassius Clay knock out Sonny Liston. He just became Muhammad Ali. It's 1964."

And you thought this reporter was making up the boxing allusions. Levine himself was knocked out of the Democrat's gubernatorial Primary by Gillum.

Levine's Ali allusion came after a tense and terse, face-in, screaming match between himself and Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, one that left journalists wondering if someone should separate the two men.

But Gaetz had a point to make: Labeling your opponent a racist can be unconscionable if it isn't provably so.

"It is disgusting," Gaetz told reporters from a different corner, still trying to calm his breathing. "That to try to win this race, after they got a candidate caught lying about taking a bribe from an undercover FBI agent, that they all have to play the race card."

And yet the insinuation persisted. Florida state legislator Patrick Henry said, "You lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas."

Republican party leaders in Florida say the exchange shows their opponents aren't campaigning on ideas.

"Obviously, when you level charges like that, you've got nothing else," says Blaise Ingoglia, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. "Its unfortunate this campaign has devolved into this, but that's all Andrew Gillum has right now.  It's just to take the eye off the things that he's advocating for."

And what is Andrew Gillum advocating? Republicans accuse him of wanting single payer healthcare, a sanctuary state and to curtail Second Amendment rights. Gillum claims none of that is true, pointing to policy ideas he's laid out and even promising to work with federal immigration enforcement at times, but will anybody remember that part of the debate from Wednesday night?

 

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Follow Eben Brown on Twitter: @FOXEbenBrown