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On the roster: A defining debate for Florida politics – Both parties see surge in primary voters – Farm bill gets delayed in the Senate – Audible: As they’d say in Greenville… – Paper, plastic or reptile?  

ORLANDO Other than giving us a chance to pick up some Mickey ears and grab a fried grouper sandwich, why is Fox News hosting a Florida gubernatorial debate here tonight? 

It’s pretty simple: What happens in Florida politics right now may matter more than in any other state.

Florida has 29 electoral votes, the same as New York and more than every state except California and Texas. By the time we get to the 2020 Census, the Sunshine State will have gained at least 3 million new residents since 2010 and be ready to join an elite club of three electoral heavyweights.

Most importantly, Florida is by far the largest swing state. The shape of America’s political future will be decided in substantial part by what voters here do. So, we tend to care more about the direction and intensity of the political trade winds in Florida than in most places.

No Democrat has been elected governor of Florida in 24 years. And in that time, the nominees that Republicans have picked have tried to stick to the model established by Jeb Bush in his eight years – a conciliatory kind of conservatism. 

Both of those things may change this year.

Democrats seem to be coalescing around former Miami Beach Mayor Phillip Levine, who got richer than Croesus in the cruise ship business and then turned his focus to politics. He’s running as a moderate pragmatist with a “get it done” mantra. If he does indeed prevail over top rival Rep. Gwen Graham, daughter of longtime Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, in the Aug. 28 primary Levine will pose a different kind of opponent than Florida Republicans are used to.

Levine’s deep pockets, persuasive delivery and willingness to do battle on behalf of liberal causes like gun control and the environment – very popular among Floridians –could be very disruptive in a state that has tended to litigate statewide races between the ideological 40-yard lines.

But how will Republicans respond? Tonight’s debate will say a great deal about that.

It’s hard to be a fixture at anything at age 43, but frontrunner Adam Putnam has managed to do so. He won election to the state legislature at age 22, served two terms representing his rural Central Florida district before winning a seat in the House and becoming the youngest member of Congress at age 26. He served for a decade as a popular and reliably conservative member of the House. In 2010, he ran for and handily won election as the state’s agricultural commissioner.

Where you live, the agriculture commission may not be a big deal, but it is in Florida. The state has 47,000 farms generating nearly $9 billion a year and the agency oversees a great deal beyond just farms. Most importantly for tonight, though, it’s one of five statewide, state-level elected offices. He’s won twice and in 2014 was the top vote getter in the state.

Ron DeSantis, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer. 

Just 36, he has represented a strongly Republican House district in the northeastern part of the state since 2013. He won the first time in a crowded six-way primary in which his background as a Navy lawyer and former federal prosecutor with double Ivy League diplomas helped him stand out.

In Congress, he has aligned himself closely first with the populist Freedom Caucus. First as a staunch foe of the Obama administration and now as one of the most outspoken defenders of President Trump, DeSantis made himself a nearly ubiquitous presence on cable news.

He has taken a back seat to no one in his efforts to derail the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and working to discredit the FBI, both of which have made him a favorite of MAGA Republicans across the country. 

DeSantis has tried to bring that scorched-earth approach to the race here, but so far, that hasn’t been enough to make the difference. Polls here have consistently shown him trailing the better-known Putnam by wide margins. With two months to go and all eyes in Florida politics on a ballroom here at the Gaylord Palms Resort, he’s got the chance to try to reset the race.

Can he show that he’s ready to govern a diverse, growing state of 21 million? Can he also demonstrate that he’s ready for a general election fight in a state that is among the most narrowly divided in American politics?

Can Putnam adapt to the new populist tone in his party without abandoning the traditional conservative policies that have already made him one of the most popular and successful politicians in the state?

We will find out tonight starting at 6:30 ET when moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum start putting them through their paces.

“Those who have but a superficial acquaintance with the sources from which they are to be drawn, will themselves recollect a variety of instances; and those who have a tolerable knowledge of human nature will not stand in need of such lights to form their opinion either of the reality or extent of that agency.” – Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 6

History: “Near present-day St. Augustine, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon comes ashore on the Florida coast, and claims the territory for the Spanish crown. Although other European navigators may have sighted the Florida peninsula before, Ponce de Leon is credited with the first recorded landing and the first detailed exploration of the Florida coast. The Spanish explorer was searching for the ‘Fountain of Youth,’ a fabled water source that was said to bring eternal youth. Ponce de Leon named the peninsula he believed to be an island ‘La Florida’ because his discovery came during the time of the Easter feast, or Pascua Florida. In 1521, he returned to Florida in an effort to establish a Spanish colony on the island. However, hostile Native Americans attacked his expedition soon after landing, and the party retreated to Cuba, where Ponce de Leon died from a mortal wound suffered during the battle. Successful Spanish colonization of the peninsula finally began at St. Augustine in 1565, and in 1819 the territory passed into U.S. control under the terms of the Florida Purchase Treaty between Spain and the United States.”

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Trump job performance 
Average approval: 
41.8 percent 
Average disapproval: 
51.8 percent 
Net Score:
 -10 points
Change from one week ago: 
down 1 points 
[Average includes: Gallup: 41% approve – 55% disapprove; CNBC: 41% approve – 47% disapprove; Quinnipiac University: 43% approve – 52% disapprove; USA Today/Suffolk University: 43% approve – 51% disapprove; CNN: 41% approve – 54% disapprove.]

Control of House
Republican average: 
41.6 percent
Democratic average: 48 percent
Democrats plus 6.4 points
Change from one week ago: 
Democratic advantage up 0.4 points 
[Average includes: USA Today/Suffolk University: 45% Dems – 39% GOP; Quinnipiac University: 49% Dems – 43% GOP; CNN: 50% Dems – 42% GOP; Gallup: 48% Dems – 43% GOP; Monmouth University: 48% Dems – 41% GOP.]

The Hill: “A surge in voter enthusiasm has prompted millions more Democrats to cast ballots in primary elections this year, a turnout explosion ahead of midterms in which motivation to vote is key to the party’s chances of reclaiming control of the House. However, Republican voters also are showing up in higher numbers than in previous midterm cycles, a sign that the GOP’s fate will be sealed not by apathetic conservatives who sit out Election Day, but by voters open to persuasion from both parties. The Hill’s analysis of primary elections held in 30 states so far, through Tuesday night’s contests, shows voters in both parties are turning out in higher numbers than in either of the last two midterm elections. Almost 13.8 million people have voted in Democratic primary contests this year — 5 million more than the 8.7 million who had voted in the same states in the 2014 midterm elections, according to data maintained by state elections offices.”

Dems come closer to solving ‘superdelegate’ disagreement – WaPo: “The Democratic National Committee’s two-year debate over its presidential primary rules came closer to resolution Wednesday, as its key rulemaking body voted to curtail the power of unpledged delegates — so-called ‘superdelegates’ — at the next convention. At the end of a three-hour conference call, which was opened to the public, the Rules and Bylaws Committee adopted a compromise that grew out of lengthy negotiations between supporters of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). In the past, superdelegates were able to vote on the first ballot at the convention, for any nominee. The new rule would prohibit superdelegates from voting until a second ballot, or in the event a candidate arrived at the convention with enough pledged delegates — earned in primaries and caucuses — to secure the nomination.”

Obama will hit the campaign trail – CNBC: “Former President Barack Obamahas been laying low when it comes to taking on President Donald Trump and the Republican Party. That’s not going to last much longer. The most high-profile member of the Democratic Party is expected to hit the campaign trail for House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates running in the midterm elections while getting guidance from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, according to three sources with direct knowledge of the matter. The timeline is fluid but the former president is expected to start making an impact in September…”

Politico: “Senate leadership’s goal of holding a floor vote on the farm bill this week is now in doubt, as key farm-state lawmakers work to resolve a new demand from Sen. Marco Rubio over a provision that would promote agricultural trade with Cuba. The Florida Republican on Wednesday declared on Twitter that he’d block any new amendments to the farm bill unless the Senate votes to strike a provision that would allow USDA funding for foreign market development programs to be spent in Cuba — or until senators adopt his proposal to ban U.S. taxpayer dollars from being spent on businesses owned by the Cuban military. After a full day of debate on Wednesday, the Senate had only cleared a manager’s package by unanimous consent that contains 18 mostly uncontroversial amendments, including new protections for pollinators and provisions that would increase funding for the milk donation program and raise the catastrophic coverage level under an insurance program for milk producers.”

The Judge’s Ruling: Let’s be constitutional – This week, Fox News Senior Judicial Analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano ask if immigrants can be deported without a trial: “The forced separation by the government of children from their parents without a trial when neither is a danger to the other is child abuse or kidnapping or both. When federal authorities engage in such morally repellant behavior — whether as a negotiating technique to bring the president’s political adversaries to the bargaining table or to coerce the immigrants to go home — it exposes them to state prosecution because of the acute and long-term harm they have caused to the children. … If he had asked his lawyers first, he would have learned that there is no legal basis for his official antipathy to due process.” More here.

Trump, Putin summit date is set for July 19 in Helsinki – AP

Trump calls his supporters “super elite” – The Hill

Congress refuses to fund construction of new Guantanamo prison – McClatchy 

“Whatever you got, finish it the hell up, because this country is being torn apart.” –Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., said to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein regarding the long-running Russia collusion probe during Thursday’s hearing.

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Miami Herald: “A two-foot alligator didn’t stroll into the Lakewood Ranch Wawa on its own earlier this month. Investigators have charged a 17-year-old boy they say grabbed the alligator from the wild and dropped it off inside the convenience store. At about 2:30 a.m. June 15, someone dropped off the gator at the Wawa at 14510 State Road 70 in Lakewood Ranch, according to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office. Deputies responded and called the Fish and Wildlife Commission, who sent a trapper out to the Wawa. The two-foot alligator was relocated to a suitable environment, according to FWC, and was not injured. On Friday, the teenager was issued a citation charging him with illegally possessing or harvesting an American alligator, a second-degree misdemeanor. The teen was not arrested but given notice to appear in court on July 21.”

“In a culture where everything from textbooks to television to SATs has been renormed and dumbed down, one should be grateful for an intellectual challenge.” – Charles Krauthammer writing in the Washington Post, Sept. 1, 2000.

Chris Stirewalt is the politics editor for Fox News. Brianna McClelland contributed to this report. Want FOX News Halftime Report in your inbox every day? Sign up here.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C.