TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — It's no secret in Florida that former Gov. Charlie Crist likes to stay cool by using a portable fan.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott's efforts to turn Crist's devotion to the device into a debate-night advantage disrupted the start of their second televised encounter Wednesday night. And the finger-pointing over "fangate" that followed brought renewed ridicule Thursday to Florida's elections.
The actual incident lasted seven minutes — an eternity on live television.
When the debate started, TV viewers initially saw an empty stage. After moderator and Miami television anchor Eliott Rodriguez called it a "peculiar situation," Crist came out.
Rodriguez then told the audience at Broward College that the panel of questioners had been told Scott was refusing to take the stage because Crist's use of a fan under his lectern violated debate rules.
Boos erupted, and another panel member asked Crist about the fan. Crist responded by asking whether it was more important to discuss his fan or discuss issues such as education and the environment.
That was apparently enough for Scott, who walked out on stage, and the debate soon began.
But the seven-minute delay, dubbed #fangate on Twitter, quickly gained national attention.
Even sports stars such as former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Warren Sapp tweeted about it. Florida itself wasn't spared, as many people revived the lampooning that the state has suffered since the "hanging chad" ballot disputes that determined the 2000 presidential election.
Why Scott's campaign would have allowed Crist to be on stage by himself for several minutes became an open question among Republican consultants.
The governor's campaign manager Melissa Sellers, who was partly responsible for handling debate preparation, came out hours later disputing what the moderators told the audience.
"Let's get one thing clear: Rick Scott never refused to take the stage and debate," Sellers said in an email to supporters shortly after 11 p.m. "In fact, our campaign was not notified Charlie had even taken the stage because the last we heard, Crist was in an 'emergency meeting' with debate organizers pleading for his precious fan."
Crist, now trying to return to the governor's office as a Democrat, has long used a fan, and this is not the first time its use has sparked complaints. He also wanted one during a debate for the 2006 Republican primary for governor, and his opponent Tom Gallagher refused to start until he had one, too.
Crist's campaign maintained Thursday that they weren't in violation of the debate rules. They pointed to a copy of the agreement in which Crist campaign adviser Dan Gelber handwrote: "with understanding that the debate hosts will address any temperature issues with a fan if necessary."
Sellers says the Scott campaign won't haggle over the fan at the third and final debate, scheduled to be broadcast on CNN next week from Jacksonville.
"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 Governor Rick Scott," she wrote.
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