TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — In a sign that the next 10 weeks could eclipse past campaigns in the nation's largest political battleground, Florida's race for governor swiftly became heated and personal after the surprising primary victories of Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis.
Gillum, a far-left Democrat seeking to become the state's first black governor, and DeSantis, a Trump-endorsed Republican, are political opposites. DeSantis assailed Gillum in a Wednesday television appearance that critics denounced as racist after the Republican called Gillum an "articulate" candidate, but said "the last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting this state." President Donald Trump, also weighed in on the race by calling Gillum a "failed socialist mayor" on Twitter.
Gillum responded by decrying what he called the "gutter politics" of DeSantis that he said echoes the influence of Trump on American politics.
"I think the Florida electorate is going to reject the politics of division," Gillum said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We're going to try to compel and appeal to the higher values of the people of the state of Florida."
The exchange between the two campaigns came less than a day after a primary outcome that appeared unthinkable a few months ago. DeSantis came from behind in the GOP primary with the help of Trump to beat Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who campaigned longer, raised more money and built party establishment support.
Gillum upset a field of five that included former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, who was hoping to become the state's first female governor and win the office once held by her father, Bob Graham. Gillum spent the least of the major candidates, but won the hearts of those who consider themselves progressives, and got a late boost from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
DeSantis, who has been a frequent guest on Fox News, took to the network to blast his general election opponent as someone who would hurt the state. But his interview came quickly came under fire by Democrats and quickly raged across social media.
"That was more than a dog-whistle," said U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, a West Palm Beach Democrat. "That was absolutely a racist, disgusting statement. I don't think there's any other way to interpret it."
The DeSantis campaign clarified that his comments were directed at Gillum's policies, not the candidate himself. "To characterize it as anything else is absurd," his spokesman Stephen Lawson said. Republicans also came to DeSantis' defense, contending that the media and Democrats were mischaracterizing what DeSantis said.
The backlash against DeSantis almost overshadowed that Trump also took shots at Gillum.
Trump on Twitter said that not only did DeSantis win but that "his opponent in November is his biggest dream." He called Gillum a "failed socialist mayor" who has "allowed crime and many other problems to flourish in the city."
Tallahassee has had one of the Florida's highest crime rates in recent years though it has been going down.
Gillum brushed off Trump's tweet, saying, "I'm a Democrat, but I have to tell you that not much what Donald Trump says is actually based in fact. The president does not scare me. If he's going to tweet at me he should @ me. And he ought to know he should be prepared to receive a response when appropriate."
The governor's race will probably become a referendum on Trump. Gillum in his remarks to supporters on election night said he and supporters would seek to counter the "dark days that we've been under coming out of Washington."
DeSantis also came out fighting, criticizing Gillum as "way, way, way too liberal for the state of Florida."
"That is not what Floridians want," DeSantis declared.
DeSantis based nearly his entire primary run on Trump and acknowledged his endorsement was the key.
"With one tweet, that kind of put me on the map," DeSantis said.
DeSantis, who turns 40 next month, is a former Navy lawyer who won his seat in 2012 running as a Washington outsider. He entered the governor's race a month after Trump's December tweet that he would make "a GREAT governor." Later Trump held a rally for him in Tampa.
Gillum, meanwhile, relied on a grassroots campaign in the big-money Democratic primary.
Gillum was a 23-year-old Florida A&M student when he became the youngest person elected to the Tallahassee City Commission in 2003. He was elected mayor in 2014. He's a gifted public speaker who did well in debates, often receiving the most applause, but the FBI is investigating Tallahassee city hall for alleged corruption. Gillum has said he's not a target.
Their policy differences are pronounced: DeSantis is pro-gun, and anti-tax; Gillum boasts about beating gun rights groups in a lawsuit and is calling for an increase in corporate taxes.
Gillum didn't make race an issue in the primary. But he acknowledged in a recent interview that it would be "big" to be Florida's first black governor.
AP reporter Joe Reedy, Tamara Lush in Orlando, Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale and Mike Schneider in Orlando contributed to this report.