Charlie Crist, left, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
CNN  — 

With Gov. Ron DeSantis riding a historic cash advantage and a tidal wave of enthusiasm for his political ascent, Monday’s gubernatorial debate is shaping up to be Democrat Charlie Crist’s last chance to engineer a comeback in Florida’s gubernatorial race and perhaps slow the rise of a future GOP presidential contender.

The debate, delayed for two weeks by Hurricane Ian, is the only time the two will meet at a forum, raising the stakes for Crist in what might be an insurmountable challenge against the surging incumbent to win back the office he held as a Republican and already failed to win back once as a Democrat. DeSantis and Crist will take the stage in Fort Pierce on Monday night, just as polls close on the first day of early voting for most Florida counties.

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  • Democrats during the primary publicly questioned whether Crist – a self-described “people person” whose personal motto is the Golden Rule – could bring the fight to DeSantis and match the Republican’s unapologetic, winner-take-all political style. Heading into the debate, Crist had shed the nice-guy approach and has recently unloaded a litany of broadsides against DeSantis in an effort to turn around the race.

    At a stop in Jacksonville on Thursday, Crist called DeSantis “arrogant,” “a clown,” and “an insincere son of a gun.” He assailed DeSantis for signing a bill to ban abortion after 15 weeks and he accused the Republican of “bullying” and of putting his political ambitions ahead of the state.

    “Running for president in 2024 – that’s all he cares about,” Crist said. “That’s all he thinks about. That’s all he’s doing.”

    For his part, DeSantis at a Tampa rally last week told supporters it was not the time to get complacent. Monday will mark the first time DeSantis takes the debate stage since going toe-to-toe with then-Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum in 2018 in what was a bruising back-and-forth that reflected the deep political divisions in the states. DeSantis ultimately won by about 32,000 votes after a recount in what was the closest race for governor in state history.

    “These are tough fights,” DeSantis said. “But we have a responsibility to stand up and be counted and we have a responsibility to sacrifice so we can preserve a free state and continue to be a guiding light for this country.”

    The limited reliable polling in the state shows DeSantis comfortably ahead of Crist, with Spectrum News/Siena College giving him an 8-point advantage well outside the survey’s margin of error. Beyond nearly universal support from Republicans, DeSantis’ received favorable marks from 50% of likely voters vs. 43% who found him unfavorable. More than half of the respondents said the state was going in the right direction. And, notably, DeSantis is leading Crist among Latinos, a sign the GOP’s recent gains in those communities have outlasted former President Donald Trump’s unexpected success.

    Perhaps even more alarming for Democrats is that only 74% of Black voters said they intend to vote for Crist, with 16% still undecided. Gillum won 86% of the Black vote four years ago, according to a CNN exit poll from that election.

    On Friday, former President Barack Obama released a video on Crist’s behalf urging Democrats to vote. Crist had previously said he believes his political friendship with Obama would energize Black voters in Florida, and he has frequently reminded those communities that, as a Republican governor, he embraced the country’s first African American president when few in his party would.

    DeSantis and Crist enter the debate with what might be the most lopsided fundraising disparity ever in a Florida governor’s race, and perhaps the country at large. Between his campaign and his political committee, DeSantis had $98 million on hand as of mid-October to Crist’s $2.2 million. Republicans have outspent Democrats in the race nearly 4 to 1, according to AdImpact, and that includes the money Crist and state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried exhausted airing ads against each other in the months leading up to their late-August primary.

    Practically speaking, the debate may be the last time many voters across the state get to hear from Crist on television. Crist and his Democratic allies have just over half a million dollars’ worth of airtime reserved for the final weeks of the race.

    Such a retreat would have been unthinkable four years ago, when DeSantis and Gillum were locked in an expensive ad war in a race that came down to the wire. For their part, Republicans don’t plan to spend much either – just $3.5 million – a sign the GOP feels comfortable in their odds heading into the final two weeks of the campaign.