MIAMI — Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum will take the stage in Tampa on Sunday night for the first debate in Florida’s race for governor, a 60-minute exchange that will air live at 8 p.m. on CNN.
The debate comes at a crucial moment in the campaign: 16 days from the Nov. 6 election, and the night before early voting sites open in some of the state’s biggest counties. Most polls suggest the race is effectively tied, as is typical in Florida, the nation’s largest presidential swing state.
Mr. Gillum, a Democrat, and Mr. DeSantis, a Republican, were supposed to face off last Tuesday in a debate that was called off because of Hurricane Michael. The Category 4 storm paralyzed campaign efforts in the Florida Panhandle and kept Mr. Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, away from the trail for 10 days as his city prepared for and recovered from its brush with the tropical cyclone. A second debate is scheduled for Wednesday.
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Hurricane politics are expected to arise but not dominate during Sunday’s debate. The rivals squabbled during the storm over whether it was appropriate for Mr. DeSantis, a former congressman who resigned after winning the August primary, to keep airing television commercials attacking Mr. Gillum over his handling of a previous storm, Hurricane Hermine, which knocked out power to thousands of Tallahassee residents in 2016. Even more of them were left in the dark after Michael, but the city appeared to restore electricity more quickly this time — a timeline Mr. Gillum will almost certainly highlight if asked about the storm.
The contest between Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Gillum, both of whom won their primaries as unapologetic partisans, is seen as a proxy for the ideological battle being waged inside their parties nationally, with Republicans trying to figure out how closely to align themselves with President Trump and Democrats grappling with how successful they can be with a more progressive message. Mr. DeSantis, one of the president’s most loyal devotees, got a shout out from Mr. Trump on Twitter on Saturday; Mr. Gillum, who campaigned during the primary with the 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, plans to hold two rallies on Monday with former Vice President Joe Biden.
Both Mr. Gillum, 39, who exudes charisma and delivers uplifting speeches, and Mr. DeSantis, 40, a former Navy prosecutor who frequently appears on Fox News, proved to be confident and effective debaters in the primary. Mr. Gillum shared his life story as the fifth of seven children in a loving, working-class family. Mr. DeSantis emphasized his sterling résumé: Yale, Harvard, Iraq.
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Aides to Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Gillum consider Sunday’s debate an opportunity for the candidates to show off their hard edges in front of a national audience.
In a preview of his likely debate jabs against Mr. Gillum, Mr. DeSantis said at weekend campaign events that his opponent was bad for the economy, soft on crime and keen on higher taxes. Mr. DeSantis also cast Mr. Gillum as untrustworthy, noting a continuing F.B.I. investigation into possible corruption at Tallahassee City Hall. Mr. Gillum has said that agents told him last year he is not the investigation’s target.
“Andrew Gillum’s record as mayor of Tallahassee is a disaster,” Mr. DeSantis said on Saturday in Orlando. (In one of his tweets not long after, Mr. Trump derided the state capital as “one of the worst & most corrupt cities in USA!” “Donald Trump is at it again,” Mr. Gillum responded in a Twitter video.)
Mr. Gillum, who has portrayed Mr. DeSantis as a mini-Trump without a comprehensive policy vision for the state, told supporters after he returned to campaigning that he was ready for a barrage of debate attacks. The governor’s race has been embroiled in ugly racial politics starting from the day after the primary, when Democrats accused Mr. DeSantis of using a racist dog whistle when he said that Mr. Gillum’s agenda would “monkey this up” for Florida. Mr. DeSantis’s campaign struggled to regain its footing for some time afterward.
“He’s going to call me a socialist. He’s going to call me corrupt. He’s going to throw his covered-up versions of racial epithets. He’s going to call me anti-Israel,” Mr. Gillum said on Friday, offering debate predictions to supporters in St. Petersburg. “I’m going to do everything that I can to keep this conversation at a high level. I’m going to do everything that I can to have a debate deserving of the people of Florida. But if I have to go there, I’m going to go there.”