The CNN/Times U.S. Senate debate in Tampa: A triumph of argument and talking points over substance
Anyone expecting a calm, reasoned exploration of political issues this close to an election better think again.
Because Sunday's debate between candidates for Florida's open U.S. Senate seat, aired live on CNN from Tampa, proved that getting these candidates together on a stage less than two weeks before Election Day mostly brings arguments, finely tuned jabs at opponents and the struggle to avoid a candidacy-ending gaffe while forcing one from the other guy.
"I've never had a heckler at the debate; I've always had them in the audience," quipped Republican candidate Marco Rubio, as independent opponent Charlie Crist kept interrupting him to make allegations he traded political favors for two jobs. Democrat Kendrick Meek later related his own experience as a linebacker football player to making headway on political issues.
Crist's response to Rubio's complaint about his heckling: "Welcome to the NFL."
Telecast this morning on CNN and moderated by State of the Union host Candy Crowley with St. Petersburg Times political editor Adam Smith, Sunday's debate did little to change the dynamic we've seen between these candidates for weeks, as the three argued over each other and traded brief barbs about issues so complex, viewers without prior knowledge of the circumstances would have little idea what they were talking about. (the debate was co-sponsored by CNN, USF and the St. Petersburg Times)
Rubio pressed the case that an overreaching government is hampering economic growth, a message finely-tailored to tap voter anger against incumbents, but an idea some economists might resist. Crist said gridlock in Washington and blind adherence to ideology was the issue -- an argument which might have more weight if he had been making it before he left the Republican party to avoid losing the GOP nomination to Rubio.
Meek struggled with two targets, criticizing Crist with allegations of flip-flopping on issues while blasting Rubio for extremely conservative positions he says will not produce results. See a full transcript of the debate by clicking here.
But the nature of the hourlong debate made probing specifics difficult, as Crowley and Smith tried to nail down each politician's position on issues ranging from specific solutions for the unemployment crisis in Florida, to coping with the huge number of illegal immigrants now in America and developing a compromise on extending tax cuts enacted by the Bush administration.
"There's a difference between compromise and cutting a deal," Rubio noted, eventually saying he would not consider a resolution to the fight over extending Bush-era tax cuts that wouldn't include all income levels. Crist argued for "common sense" solutions developed outside the hothouse of partisan conflict, but offered few details. Meek tried to list Rubio's more extreme views, saying the Republican doesn't support stem cell research or the right to have an abortion.
Few concrete ideas surfaced. Rubio advocated securing the nation's borders, fixing the legal immigration system and having illegal immigrants return to the home countries for legal immigration. But he also said he didn't advocate "rounding up" undocumented people already in America. So how do you get them to leave? And how do you "fix" the immigration system to begin with? And where will the money for all this come from if people's taxes are also cut?
Similarly, Crist cast himself as "flexible," comparing his changed positions to the way quarterbacks "call an audible" in a football game, criticizing Rubio as a prisoner of ideology. But Crowley asked "isn't ideology another name for what you believe in?" And Smith got to the central problem Crist faces as a former Republican, asking how voters can know what he'll do in office if he's willing to change positions so readily.
Meek fumbled a bit with laying out ideas clearly, resisting the notion that the Iraq war made America safer while not completely denying it and noting that Rubio speaks out against cutting deals while serving as Speaker of the House in Florida -- where deal-cutting is practically a job requirement.
After watching several advertising-free debates, it was odd to see several commercial breaks slotting into this one. And the candidates didn't get to offer closing statements, as the tussling between the three men went right up to the show's end.
CNN anchor John King gets his shot Monday, anchoring a 7 p.m. debate from USF with gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink and Rick Scott. With just two candidates and this experience in the rear view mirror, perhaps we'll get less name calling and more talk on specific issues.
Because debates like this one make it awful tough to see beyond the code words, bumper sticker slogans and attack ads.