If the debate last night between Ag Commissioner Adam Putnam and Congressman Ron DeSantis were a heavyweight title fight, judges might have awarded DeSantis a split decision. But when 90 percent of the debate questions focused on Donald Trump and national issues – DeSantis’s wheelhouse – he should have scored a knockout. Putnam was at a disadvantage from the opening bell, but did a masterful job playing defense, keeping his guard up, and preventing DeSantis from landing any significant punches, while showcasing his policy chops.

Putnam landed a beautifully-delivered rhetorical jab in his opening comments, when he welcomed the two Fox News moderators, then addressed the assembled Republicans in the audience, before smoothly turning to DeSantis to say, “Welcome to Florida, Congressman.”  The delivery was polished, or more likely, practiced. But it worked, insofar as the Florida political class realized it was a shot at the fact that DeSantis’s campaign strategy is heavily reliant on Fox News appearances from a Washington D.C. studio.

Putnam then pivoted smoothly to answer the opening question about retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, to the cheers of more than 1,000 Republicans comprising the bulk of the audience.

DeSantis got the same question, about the Supreme Court. It was his first opportunity to utter anything in the debate, and he opened as expected, by playing his Trump card. Literally.

In fact, he didn’t waste a single moment thanking Fox News, introducing himself or otherwise making opening remarks. His first words in the debate were: “So I’m proud to have the endorsement of President Donald Trump. And I think that Donald Trump has done a better job of appointing judges to both the U.S. Supreme Court and the appeals court, than any other president in my lifetime, including one of my heroes, Ronald Reagan.”

That’s not a bad opening line. It’s exactly what he should have done. Pressed his obvious advantage, early and often.

But that’s when the Fox News moderators promptly put their fingers on the DeSantis side of the scale.  For the next 20 minutes, every single question was focused on Donald Trump. The second and third questions went to Putnam, first asking him why Trump was wrong to endorse DeSantis – a no-win question. He was then asked if he would endorse Trump in 2020.

Putnam deftly handled both questions, telling Brett Baier on the second question, “I look forward to campaigning with him as governor of Florida.”

But DeSantis then landed a pair of his own jabs: “That would be the first time you campaigned with him…,” and a moment later, regarding campaigning with Trump during the 2016 election cycle, “You couldn’t find Adam Putnam if you had a search warrant.”

But this is where Putnam’s debate prep paid off. Baier gave him the opportunity to reply, and Putnam fired off a flurry of things he believes Trump is doing well, including tax cuts, trade and the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Then the crowd erupted in cheers when he slapped at Hillary Clinton.

“I love the fact that together, we all get to watch America get better by day, while Hillary explains the title of her book, ‘What happened?’  What happened is, she lost!  That’s what happened.”

The next question, to DeSantis, focused on Putnam’s charge that DeSantis is running his campaign from Washington D.C. But DeSantis used it as an opportunity to remind the audience of his deep ties to Florida, including his appearance in the Little League World Series and the fact he graduated from Dunedin High School.

After that, it was right back to Trump questions: one on civility in politics, then a handful on immigration. The first focused on family separation, the second on the 2016 election cycle and the role that immigration played in the defeat of Jeb Bush. How that is relevant in 2018 is tough to say. The third question?  Also immigration. The fourth? Immigration and deportation. The fifth: E-verify. All of them, including the civility question, were tailor made for DeSantis, because each of them offered new opportunities to play up his endorsement from President Trump.

All of the remaining questions of the debate were also linked to Trump or national politics: guns, trade and health care. Even the lightning round opened with a question about the federal government’s (i.e. Trump’s) response to the hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. The second lighting round question and last of the debate? You guessed it: President Trump. And his consideration of whether or not to let states decide on the legality of medical marijuana.

Trump literally dominated a debate he was not participating in.

But the immigration questions, an issue in which Trump reigns supreme, offered DeSantis a chance to score a knockout blow before the halfway point in the debate. Five questions in a row where DeSantis was served an opportunity on a silver platter to lord the Trump endorsement over Putnam and skewer him. But where Trump himself might have uncorked a perfect sound bite designed to eviscerate his opponent, DeSantis seemed decidely un-Trumpian. He pulled his punches, preferring to stick to talking points like a regular politician. He didn’t venture to throw any Trump-esque uppercuts aimed at Putnam’s chin.

Credit Putnam, too. His polished delivery and debate prep probably prevented any real damage. Like a boxer wrapping up an aggressive opponent, Putnam managed to defend himself well enough, negating DeSantis’s attempts to land a few solidly-thrown punches. On question after question, Putnam ducked the DeSantis (or the Fox News host’s) punch, and either fired a jab back at DeSantis, or just backed away and shifted the focus to reframe the question to his advantage.

All in all, for Putnam to survive an onslaught like that demonstrates he’s going to a be a formidable opponent when the next debate focuses more deeply on Florida, including budget and policy issues that will require significant study for DeSantis to perform well.

 

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