ORLANDO — The portable fan that Gov. Charlie Crist insists on at every public appearance could be seen and even heard during Tuesday's televised debate, but it didn't keep the independent U.S. Senate candidate out of the hot seat.
In Crist's last chance to chip away at frontrunner Marco Rubio, with only one week left before the Nov. 2 election, the governor frequently found himself playing defense in response to tough questions from debate moderator David Gregory of NBC's Meet the Press.
In three separate lines of questioning, Gregory pressed Crist to explain his defection from the Republican Party, unwillingness to say which party he would caucus with in Congress if elected, and his changed positions on issues like adoption by same-sex couples, which he now favors.
Holding up a copy of the Republican Party platform, Gregory asked, "Were you unaware that was an entrenched part of the Republican Party, or did somehow you change for political expediency?"
"I haven't changed," Crist said. "What changed is the Republican Party, particularly the right wing of the Republican Party."
Later, Crist added: "This is a heartfelt change of views, and only I can know that, and people will believe it or not."
Polls suggest the people aren't buying it. Crist has been the runnerup for weeks, with Democrat Kendrick Meek in third place. A confident-looking Rubio even sought to rise above the fray during their sixth debate, passing up two opportunities to criticize Crist and saying he would rather talk about "the issues."
Rubio delivered his typically polished performance, though he struggled to explain how he would pay for tax cuts for the wealthy and how high the retirement age for Social Security should be raised. A favorite among conservative tea party activists, Rubio stole some of Crist's thunder by blaming both the Republicans and the Democrats for national woes.
"For too long, Washington has had us on the wrong road," Rubio said. "Both parties are to blame for this."
Again and again, Gregory came back to Crist. "You've dodged this question for months," he said, asking Crist whether he would align himself with Democrats or Republicans in Washington. "Does it mean your vote is for sale?"
Crist fumbled a bit about before saying, "I would make a decision that's in the best interest of my fellow Floridians." He tried to make the case that Rubio is offering a ''pessimistic'' approach, but it didn't square with Rubio's telegenic appearance and his repeated affirmations about America as the world's greatest country.
One of the only times Crist got in a dig at Rubio was in response to a question about housing foreclosures. "It's an epidemic. Some at this table have faced close to foreclosure," Crist said, though casual observers of the race wouldn't know he was talking about Rubio's home in Tallahassee.
Meek, who is wrestling with Crist for Democratic voters, pitched himself as the true believer in abortion rights, adoption by same-sex couples and equal pay for women and men. ''When I hear flip-flops in the hallway, I think it's the governor walking down the hall," Meek quipped.
Later, when Gregory asked him about his voting record in Congress, Meek replied: "I'm a Democrat for sure, you can count on that."
Meek got in a quick jab at Rubio, who has portrayed himself as a political outsider in the campaign even though he has spent most of his career in public office.
"This man was the speaker of the House of Representatives," Meek said. "He was not a back bencher."
Now that the debates are over, the candidates will begin a final statewide push to get their supporters to the polls by Nov. 2.
Rubio kicks off a bus tour today in Pensacola that will zigzag around the state until Sunday.
Meek is dividing most of his time between South and Central Florida, culminating Monday evening with three back-to-back rallies in West Palm Beach, Pompano Beach and Miami.
Crist embarks on a statewide bus tour from the Panhandle starting Friday.