ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Florida governor’s race was spinning wildly on Thursday, almost as fast as that electric fan former Gov. Charlie Crist insists on bringing along to campaign appearances.
The resulting dust-up provoked the rarest of pleasures — an unscripted moment in a campaign season made for TV.
Gov. Rick Scott waited seven minutes, an eternity on live television, before appearing onstage for Wednesday night’s debate, all because Crist insisted on having his portable pal plugged in below his lectern.
The finger-pointing and fundraising then cranked up to full velocity, and before they had left the stage, #Fangate was a thing. Many people posted messages on social media lampooning a state still trying to shake off the “hanging chads” debacle from the 2000 presidential race.
Crist has been taking a portable fan to campaign events for years, from churches to town squares to a recent interview in the air-conditioned offices of The Associated Press in Miami. Like a rock star’s concert rider, the fan is such a requirement that one GOP operative calls it Crist’s “teddy bear.”
Perhaps seeing an opportunity to put Crist at a psychological disadvantage, Scott’s handlers tried to ban the fan from the debate. Organizers sent both campaigns rules saying “candidates may not bring electronic devices (including fans)” on stage. Crist campaign adviser Dan Gelber signed the rules, but added a handwritten caveat: “with understanding that the debate hosts will address any temperature issues with a fan if necessary.”
Just before the curtain opened, Crist’s handlers insisted on placing the fan behind his lectern near his feet, and Scott’s handlers demanded that the moderators do something. But then they were on live TV, facing an empty stage. Crist soon appeared, and CBS4 anchor Eliott Rodriguez turned to the audience.
“The rules of the debate that I was shown by the Scott campaign say that there should be no fan,” Rodriguez said. “Somehow there is a fan there. And for that reason, ladies and gentlemen, I am being told that Gov. Scott will not join us for this debate.”
Boos erupted. Crist was asked to explain.
“Are we really going to debate about a fan or are we going to talk about education and the environment and the future of our state? I mean, really,” Crist responded.
That was apparently enough for Scott, who came out and joined the debate.
Scott’s campaign manager Melissa Sellers insisted later that the governor “never refused to take the stage.”
But as the seven-minute delay gained national attention, the Florida GOP blew it up even more, posting a compilation of pictures showing Crist with his fan on the Buzzfeed Community website, promoted with the hashtag #CristHitsTheFan. Democrats countered with tweets accusing Scott of having a backstage #fantrum. And later Thursday, Democratic activists were showing up at Scott events holding portable fans.
The post-debate spin included this pithy quote from Sellars: “Charlie Crist can bring his fan, microwave, and toaster to debates – none of that will cover up how sad his record as governor was compared to the success of Rick Scott.” Inboxes filled with still more Fangate references, from the overt (“I didn’t want to argue about a fan on the podium,” Crist wrote) to more subtle digs (“The Record Charlie Crist Doesn’t Want You To See Him Sweat Over,” from Scott’s camp).
Libertarian candidate Adrian Wyllie wasn’t allowed on the stage. A potential spoiler with Scott and Crist virtually tied at about 40 percent each, Wyllie was locked out by a federal judge because he lacks 15 percent support in the polls, another debate rule.
“We have two children for Florida governor right now and I’m the only adult in the race,” Wyllie told the AP in an interview.
It was a balmy 81 degrees Thursday in Crist’s hometown of St. Petersburg, where the former Republican has long been on record against sweating.
Crist even mentioned his portable pal on page 3 of his biography, as he described the Democratic National Convention speech he gave after switching parties.
“A small fan was whirring at my feet,” he wrote. “I always like a fan at the podium when I give a big speech. You have no idea how hot those TV lights can be.”
Sometimes Crist travels with one fan; occasionally two. As governor, Crist spent $320 on fans during a trade mission to Europe. They’re almost always placed at his feet, blowing cool air over his body and face, although at times a dutiful aide has held one aloft.
The fan is such a fixture that it even has its own Twitter account, which has become a scathing and vulgar forum for Crist-haters.
And the fan has threatened to become debate fodder before. When Crist showed up with one before debating Tom Gallagher in the 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary, Gallagher wouldn’t go on until he got one, too.
“It’s crazy,” said Gallagher’s campaign manager, Brett Doster.
“Charlie Crist is a narcissist and he has these little pet peeves that have to be just perfect when he’s out on the campaign trail,” Doster added. “The fan is akin to his teddy bear when he’s out speaking in public.”
Alex Sink, the Democrat who lost to Scott in 2010, recalls following Crist to a microphone and having his fan blow up her skirt several times. She was a good sport, even taping a parody video for the Florida Capitol Press Corps comedy night in which a fan blew her skirt over her head, a la Marilyn Monroe.
“I learned very early on to stay away from that G-D fan,” she told the AP on Thursday.
Fangate shows how small-minded her former opponent can be, she said: “It reinforces that he’s so petty and petulant. It just reminds us all of how un-normal he is as a person.”
But Sink also sees the humor in these unscripted moments.
“It’s absolutely hilarious,” she said. “It will be on Saturday Night Live for sure.”