DAVIE — Just two weeks before the Nov. 2 election that could end his long political career, Gov. Charlie Crist tried to rattle U.S. Senate frontrunner Marco Rubio by raising new questions about his character in the fourth televised U.S. Senate debate.
Crist, who is running without party affiliation, called the Republican nominee an ''extreme right wing candidate'' who would try to outlaw abortion, punish public schoolteachers and shear Social Security benefits. And for the first time, Crist accused Rubio of changing his position on insurance legislation when he was House speaker after selling his West Miami home "for cash'' to a chiropractor who was lobbying him.
Public records show the mother of chiropractor Mark Cereceda bought the house at a price that was in line with comparable home sales. Rubio called Crist's claim ''categorically false'' and said the sale was an "arm's-length transaction."
"In front of a live audience in this state, he just launched a vicious personal attack on me based on a falsehood," Rubio shot back.
Crist interrupted: "All I've done is tell the truth."
The two men and longtime political adversaries talked over each other until the moderator ordered them to move on.
And so the fourth of six debates for the three major Senate candidates — Rubio, Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek — came to end without any major gaffes that might disrupt a race becoming increasingly predictable. Rubio looked unsteady at times but never lost his cool.
Polls have shown Rubio with a comfortable lead for weeks, followed by Crist. Meek is in third place. Rubio is flush with cash for the crucial homestretch of the campaign, having reported $5.5 million in the bank as of the end of September.
The other tense moment of the debate came when Meek ripped Crist for flip-flopping on offshore oil drilling, which the Miami congressman has consistently opposed expanding.
"You were there with Sarah Palin a couple years ago saying, 'Drill baby drill,' " Meek charged.
"I never said 'Drill baby drill,' " Crist said.
"You were clapping," Meek retorted, to which Crist said, "I was there to support my friend John McCain."
Rubio was put on the defensive about his practice of charging personal expenses on his state GOP credit card when he was a legislative leader. For the first time, he said he regretted it.
"Clearly if I had a chance to do those again, we'd do it all very differently, but the bottom line and the most important thing to understand is that I have never had personal expenses paid for by the Republican Party," Rubio said, although he has declined to release two years of credit card statements.
Rubio was prepared when Crist launched a familiar attack on his proposal to shore up Social Security by raising the retirement age. Rubio noted that his mother — who depends entirely on Social Security and will turn 80 in two weeks — was in the audience and he said his plan would affect only younger workers.
Rubio called Crist's attack "an old political trick which is, 'Let's go out and scare seniors about Social Security.' "
Pressed by the panel, Crist and Meek struggled to explain in detail how they would fix Social Security.
For his part, Rubio was unclear about his opposition to the so-called "Dream Act," which would grant citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants who attend college or serve in the military. Rubio has said he opposes the current legislation in Congress.
The debate at Nova Southeastern University in Davie was sponsored by Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association. It was broadcast on CBS affiliates across Florida.
Panelists included Myriam Marquez, editorial page editor of the Miami Herald, William March of the Tampa Tribune and Michael Williams of WFOR4 in Miami. The debate was moderated by Antonio Mora of WFOR.
Crist fended off accusations from both Meek and Rubio that he had left the Republican Party and modulated his positions simply to boost his poll ratings.
"I'm a guy who believes in common sense, not nonsense," Crist said. "I'm running against an extreme right wing candidate who believes in taking rights away from women, punishing seniors and punishing teachers."
Desperate to pull Democrats away from Meek, Crist called it "unconscionable'' for Rubio to oppose President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan because it saved the jobs of tens of thousands of teachers and firefighters in Florida.
But Crist was also highly critical of Obama. "Obamacare was off the charts, was wrong," he said. "It taxed too much, has mandates that are probably unconstitutional … and it was rammed though."
Meek repeatedly tried to bring the conversation back to the fact that both Crist and Rubio support extending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, "tax cuts that will take this country into a deeper hole."
Beth Reinhard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Adam Smith can be reached at email@example.com.