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Crist, DeSantis spar before a rowdy Fort Pierce crowd at Florida’s only gubernatorial debate

NewsCrist, DeSantis spar before a rowdy Fort Pierce crowd at Florida's only gubernatorial debate

FORT PIERCE — What started as an almost-sleepy gathering of DeSantis supporters Monday afternoon turned into hundreds of partisans shouting at each other across Second Street as the debate between Charlie Crist and Gov. Ron DeSantis grew closer.

There had been hardly a Crist supporter, and only a few Crist signs, in sight until about 90 minutes before the debate was set to begin at the Sunrise Theater. That’s when Crist supporters, marching from their pre-date rally to the debate venue, reached the Sunrise and all the DeSantis backers who had been there for hours.

The parade of about 150 supporters were led by Crist’s running mate, Karla Hernandez.

They chanted as they approached the theater, and, in turn, were met with chants and jeers from the DeSantis faithful.

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TCPalm will be outside the debspante venue throughout the day and the evening. Come back for the latest news from the Sunrise Theatre.

8:30 p.m.: Crowd disperses

Debate-goers filed out of the Sunrise Theater and dispersed into the night. A few DeSantis and Crist stragglers remained outside the venue, but by 8:30 p.m., Second Street was mostly cleared out.

The street remained closed, and there was a lingering police presence as people headed home — or to the 2nd Street Bistro, where some supporters hoped for a post-debate DeSantis appearance. He didn’t show.

Fort Pierce police arrested Bryce Graham outside the Sunrise Theatre Monday night during  the gubernatorial debate. Before being handcuffed, Graham told police he wanted to keep his lanyard from the debate. He was charged with breach of peace and disorderly conduct, police said.

7:51: The only arrest

The only arrest Monday came outside the Sunrise Theatre just before the end of the debate.

Police arrested Bryce Graham, 25. They did not say where he lived.

Graham was charged with breach of peace and disorderly conduct, classified as a second-degree misdemeanor, police spokeswoman April Lee said.

Graham was handcuffed and put into the back of a police vehicle after he refused to relinquish his credential to reenter the theater. He told officers the credential was a keepsake from the debate.

Graham was issued a notice to appear, Lee said, and was not jailed.

6:40 p.m.: Thinning crowd

As debate time neared, the crowed quickly thinned. They still traded jeers across the street, but the balance tilted back to the DeSantis crowd. Did all of the Crist supporters have tickets to get inside the theater? 

6:05 p.m.: DeSantis arrives

At the corner of Indian River Drive and Boston Avenue, DeSantis arrived in a motorcade to chants of “USA” from a few dozen supporters.

He rolled down his window and gave a smile and thumbs up — police stopped a woman who tried running up to his window as he drove by. 

DeSantis’ supporters headed back to the Sunrise Theater, where they clashed with Crist’s crowd. Each crowd stood on opposite sides of Second Street, trading chants:

“Abortion is murder,” a DeSantis supporter chanted through a megaphone. “Abortion is health care,” a Crist supporter yelled back. 

“My body, my choice,” the crowd started chanting.

5:55 p.m.: Crist supporters arrive

The crowd outside the Sunrise had been decidedly — overwhelmingly — pro-DeSantis for hours. Finally, Charlie Crist’s supporters arrived on the scene.

At least 100 Crist backers, chanting and waving their signs, came marching south on Second Street, provoking jeers and screams from those wearing DeSantis gear.

Police moved closer to both sides of the crowd, making sure they didn’t get too close to each other.

Crist supporters now outnumber DeSantis backers.

5:50 p.m.: Who’s in the house?

About 400 people, only about one-third of the theater’s 1,200-seat capacity, are expected to be inside the debate tonight. Those seats will be filled withy by local leaders and party loyalists from each campaign, according to Sunrise Theatre Director Sharon Engle.

5:42 p.m.: Planning paying off

Sunrise Theatre Director Sharon Engle said all planning leading up to the debate, especially communication with @CBS12 and @FortPiercePD and other law enforcement agencies has gone “smoothly” for the #FLGovDebate.

Scenes outside of the Sunrise Theatre hours ahead of the 2022 Florida Gubernatorial Debate held in Fort Pierce on Oct. 24, 2022. The televised debate between Republican incumbent Ron DeSantis and Democrat Charlie Crist starts at 7 p.m.

Wspantch live: Excitement builds outside Sunrise Thespantre in Fort Pierce for DeSspanntis-Crist debspante

4:45 p.m.: Flags lining the streets

About two hours before the debate was set to start, dozens of DeSantis supporters had lined up on Second Street in front of the Sunrise Theater.

Several waved American flags, DeSantis flags and a variety of signs with slogans in support of the governor: “Top Gov,” “DeSantisland.”

Aside from Crist yard signs that were lined up and down the streets, he had few visible supporters outside the theater at the time.

Dallas Wesley, owner of Beach Bowls downtown, showed her support for DeSantis.

Scenes ahead of the 2022 Florida Gubernatorial Debate held in Fort Pierce on Oct. 24, 2022.

The pre-debate was a family event, too, with her 2-year-old daughter Makynlee Croke proudly driving up and down the Second Street sidewalk in a hot-pink mini Jeep with a DeSantis campaign sign strapped to the back of the motorized toy.

“We’ve been here for about two hours and we’re excited the debate is here in our city,” Wesley said. “It’s nice to see him (DeSantis) putting his face around town. Big things are coming to Fort Pierce.”

2:15 p.m.:  DeSantis supporters wait for hours

Bob Kunst, 80, drove two hours from Miami Beach to hold a hand-written “Gays 4 DeSantis” sign right in front of the Sunrise Theatre. He had been sitting there since about 11:30 a.m., he said — it was his first time visiting the city.

“I’ve done about 260 events between Trump and DeSantis,” Kunst said. “I want DeSantis to win because I like where he’s at. He fights back.”

Kunst, who said he’s a registered Democrat, wore a Trump 2020 hat and “Deplorables for Trump” T-shirt. He planned to remain outside until the debate started. 

“I wanted to let him know there are a lot of gay people who are not Republicans, but are Democrats, who are on his side,” he said. 

By 2 p.m., Kunst and his sign had already elicited reactions from passersby, he said, one of whom told him that DeSantis is anti-gay. Kunst, who said he is gay, said he disagreed. “Gays 4 DeSantis” isn’t a formal wider organization, though, Kunst said; rather, it’s his personal slogan. 

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Scenes outside of the Sunrise Theatre hours ahead of the 2022 Florida Gubernatorial Debate held in Fort Pierce on Oct. 24, 2022. The televised debate between Republican incumbent Ron DeSantis and Democrat Charlie Crist starts at 7 p.m.

1:30 p.m.: ‘We’ve got your back’

A 20-foot banner leaned against a street lamp, showing an image of DeSantis in front of firefighters and law enforcement. It said “We’ve Got your Back.”

John Fischer, 60, of Boca Raton, sat behind the banner wearing an American flag T-shirt and puffing on a cigar. Fischer, a retired firefighter, set up the banner to show support for DeSantis. He had been sitting outside the Sunrise Theater since 9:30 a.m., he said.

1 p.m.: Early birds get their spots

Protesters are already positioned along Second Street in front of the Sunrise Theatre, hours before the start of tonight’s 7 p.m. televised gubernatorial debate between Republican incumbent Ron DeSantis and Democrat Charlie Crist.

DeSantis and Crist yard signs lined the streets of downtown Fort Pierce Monday, and a handful of DeSantis supporters parked themselves in front of the Sunrise Theater as early as 9:30 a.m. to hold signs of support.

Early in the day, police already had lined Second Street with metal crowd-control barricades. Later in the afternoon, those gates proved useful to keep DeSantis and Crist supporters on opposite sides of the street.

TV satellite trucks were parked along side streets, and camera crews were positioned across the street from the theater. A pickup truck with “DeSantis 2024” flags waving in the wind cruised down the street. 

And all this hours before the candidates were to take the stage.

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