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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Crist goes after Rubio quick and often in first debate on Fox News Sunday




The debate between Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist, engaged in an increasingly heated Republican U.S. Senate primary, is under way on Fox News Sunday.

Crist wasted no time going at Rubio, asserting he used political funds as a "slushfund." Again and again in the 45 minute debate, he went after his rival. "Unfortunately, recent news accounts in Florida have come out that indicate, in fact, that Speaker Rubio views public service as way to enhance his personal enrichment. And that's just wrong."

Rubio denied the charges and said the race is about ideas and taking on the Obama administration. "Governor, you just don't get it." Crist did not relent, bringing up Rubio's double-billing of airplane flights as a state legislator and other questions.

But then talk turned to one of Crist's bigger liabilities -- the hug.

Crist had to answer questions about his embrace of Obama's stimulus program. Fox showed a clip of Jeb Bush criticizing Crist's move as a "mistake." Crist called Bush his "friend" and an "extraordinary governor," but said people can disagree.

Then he turned it right back to Rubio, calling him a "lobbyist."

Asked point blank if he would have voted for the stimulus, Crist said yes. Rubio said he would have voted no and pushed for alternative ideas instead. "For Florida Republicans," Rubio said, "the choice is pretty clear." But Rubio did not say what he has before, that as governor, he would have taken some of the money, too.

He called Crist's repeated charges "outrageous."

Crist touted Cover Florida insurance plan but host Chris Wallace noted that a fraction of the state's population, about 5,000, have signed up. "It's hardly cover Florida," he told Crist, who insisted it was still worthwhile.

After a commercial break, the discussion turned to immigration and Wallace told viewers that while Rubio was House speaker, a number of bills to crack down on the problem did not advance. Rubio implied he was not the roadblock, saying members had many other things on their agenda, a point others have disputed

The exchange went like this:

"But, speaker, couldn't you have done more? Because that's what some critics say," Wallace said.

Rubio: Well, we gave it a hearing. The support wasn't there among the membership at the time, and they were focused at that time on some very serious challenges in a 60-day session.

Crist: Did you send a letter to the ...

Rubio: But let me move on by ...

Crist: ... committee chair saying you wanted him to pass...

Rubio: Let me move on and answer the question about immigration...

Crist: Want to answer that one?

On taxes, Crist attacked Rubio's "tax swap" as the biggest increase in Florida history. The plan, never enacted, called for raising the sales tax and eliminating most property tax. Crist said he signed into law the biggest tax decrease. He also asserted under his watch $7 billion was cut from the budget but did not mention most of that was a necessity due to plummeting tax revenue.

Crist ruled out running as an independent, saying he was firmly Republican and had plenty of time to win.

Rubio said Florida was worse off than when Crist took over, noting record high unemployment and home foreclosures. "Who do you trust to stand up to Barack Obama and offer a clear alternative. I am running for the U.S. senate because if I get there, I will stand up to (him). We can't trust you, governor, to stand up to Barack Obama."

Crist used his closing remarks to again raise questions about Rubio, noting he worked as $300,000 "lobbyist-lawyer" while serving in the Legislature. "Whose interest was he really looking out for? We have a very fundamental different view about pubic service. I think it is to serve the public. That's why I took the stimulus money because I put people above politics."

Then, in one of the more explosive accusations, Crist asked why Rubio had not yet disclosed his tax returns. "We asked you to do it three days ago and you still haven't done it. Is it because that you're doctoring the books?"

Wallace gave Rubio 15 seconds to respond. "These are outrageous allegations. You know what this campaign is 11 months old and this debate is not 40 minutes old and we have yet to hear a single significant public policy proposal from Charlie Crist."

"Oh yes, we have," Crist said, as Wallace interjected and called the debate to a close.

[Last modified: Thursday, September 9, 2010 11:25am]


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