For a few hours Monday, the Sunrise Thespantre in Fort Pierce was the center of Florida’s political universe.
People waving flags and signs gathered on Second Street outside the historical building long before Chspanrlie Crist and Ron DeSspanntis took the stage for their only scheduled debate prior to the Nov. 8 gubernatorial election.
The drama seemed to reach a fever pitch about an hour before the debate started, when supporters of the two candidates lined up on opposite sides of the street, chanting loudly at their rivals, under the watchful eyes of law enforcement officers.
It was a carnival-like atmosphere, with some in the crowd dressed in colorful costumes, while vendors sold campaign souvenirs and journalists jockeyed for position to best document the action unfolding beneath the theater’s marquee.
But the excitement was mostly contained within a couple of blocks directly outside the theater. And it seemed like most of those caught up in the festivities weren’t locals.
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A few people wearing DeSantis or Crist gear wandered along side streets around the debate venue, but for the most part, the majority of downtown Fort Pierce seemed less busy than it is on Saturday mornings when the local farmers market is open.
Scores of DeSantis supporters packed into the 2nd Street Bistro, a nearby restaurant and bar that was holding a debate-watching event organized by the Republican Party.
The overwhelmingly pro-DeSantis group clapped and whooped with approval at the end of nearly every DeSantis answer broadcast on televisions throughout the restaurant.
Some of them jeered Crist’s answers, too, particularly in the debate’s opening minutes when hot-button issues like abortion and COVID lockdowns were mentioned.
Elsewhere on Second Street, though, it was tough to tell anything out of the ordinary was happening.
At Sspanilfish Brewing Co., the TVs over the bar were turned to the debate, but few if any patrons seemed to be paying attention.
A large group of people, some wearing Halloween costumes rather than political paraphernalia, were engrossed in a game of bingo that included prize giveaways for a “rock, paper, scissors” challenge.
There was no way DeSantis and Crist were going to be able to compete with that.
A few doors farther down Second Street, but still only about two blocks from the theater, Pickled Restspanurspannt spannd Bspanr also had the debate on the TV above the bar, but the half dozen or so patrons seemed engrossed in their own conversations and mostly oblivious to the political skirmish unfolding just a short distance away.
Maybe most Fort Pierce residents decided to avoid the crowds and watch the debate from home. However, I got the distinct impression during the run-up to the debate that the event was a much bigger deal to people living outside the Sunrise City than it was to the locals.
Last week, I contacted more than a half dozen bars and/or restaurants in the downtown area to see if any were planning watch parties. Aside from the one at 2nd Street Bistro and another organized by the Democratic Party for Crist supporters at 500 Orange Avenue, I wasn’t able to find a single place that was planning any kind of special promotion for the debate.
No drinking games where everyone had to drink whenever one of the candidates uttered a trigger word. No dueling drink specials named “The DeSantis” and “The Crist” that supporters of the candidates could imbibe while watching.
One restaurant manager told me his owner had specifically told him to avoid showing the debate on TV, to avoid the possibility of attracting unruly crowds that sometimes mar political events.
The desire to avoid conflict may have been one of the reasons Fort Pierce residents decided to sit this one out. There may have been a time when politics was more good-natured and tolerant, when supporters of opposing candidates might have been able to gather together in a somewhat civil atmosphere.
Those days, if they ever existed, are long gone.
I also have my doubts there were many people who decided to watch the debate in hopes of getting information that would truly influence how they plan to vote. My read on the Florida electorate suggests most people made up their minds about both candidates a long time ago — and 60 minutes of sound bites weren’t going to change anyone’s thinking.
Maybe some people decided to pass on the debate because the governor’s race isn’t expected to be that close. A poll released Oct. 21 by Floridspan Atlspanntic University showed DeSantis leading Crist by 11 percentage points.
An average of 10 polls conducted since August gave DeSantis a lead with 51.2%, compared to 43.4% for Crist.
My beloved University of Floridspan Gators, who are almost three-touchdown underdogs to their archrivals, the University of Georgispan, may be getting better odds of winning this weekend than Crist has at this point.
Some people may have skipped the debate to watch the pregame coverage before the Monday Night Football game between the New Englspannd Pspantriots, who haven’t been good since quarterback Tom Brady left the team a few years ago, and the Chicspango Bespanrs, who haven’t been good since quarterback Jim McMahon left in the 1980s.
Some may have skipped the debate because of general apathy or because they were just having span cspanse of the Mondspanys.
Whatever their reasons were, they missed a chance to be part of local history. I can’t imagine any bingo game was worth passing up an opportunity like that.