TAMPA — Gov. Charlie Crist tried to turn himself into a human speed bump to stop U.S. Senate front-runner Marco Rubio from racing into the last week of the campaign, frequently rising up out of turn during Sunday's nationally televised debate with sweeping accusations against Rubio's politics and character.
As Rubio tried to make a point about the independent governor flip-flopping on issues, Crist hurled attacks that the former House speaker used his political power for personal benefit.
"I've never had a heckler at the debate. I've always had them in the audience," quipped the Republican nominee.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek tried to get attention by playing the straight man, cutting Crist down as a political opportunist at least twice in asides to the CNN audience.
As in the previous four debates, Rubio withstood a number of blows from both opponents, who sought to knock him as a right-wing idealogue as he sits on a double-digit lead in the polls.
The three men sat side by side during the hourlong debate moderated by CNN's Candy Crowley and Adam C. Smith of the St. Petersburg Times at a theater on the University of South Florida's Tampa campus.
At one point the cheerful but combative Crist patted an irate Meek on the back, while Rubio kept his eyes trained on his rivals or his notes.
A back-and-forth over the tax cuts begun under former President George W. Bush offered one of the most substantiative discussions of the debate. Meek wants to extend tax breaks only for the middle class, while Rubio and Crist favor preserving cuts for all income levels.
Meek said of Rubio: "He's saying he's a deficit hawk, but at the same time he's saying, 'Let's give tax cuts.' … I think it's very, very important to note that the middle class has carried this recession on their back like no one else. And I think it's very, very important that we continue to give them extra attention."
Crist said he would be open to compromise on tax cuts for the wealthy. Not Rubio.
"There's a difference between compromise and cutting a deal," Rubio said. "Cutting deals in Washington, there's too much of that. The bottom line is that any compromise that does not extend the current tax code to everybody is a tax increase."
Crist tried to capitalize on the disagreement between Rubio and Meek.
"This bickering back and forth … you're seeing it right here right now," he said. "That's why I'm running as an independent, to give the people of Florida a choice."
To which Meek retorted: "We know why the governor is running as an independent. Because he couldn't beat Marco Rubio."
Crist tried to take the sting out of Meek's remark by forcing his way back into the conversation. "The reason I'm running as an independent is because it's what the people want and it's what's right with my own heart," Crist said, though polls showed him facing defeat if he had stayed a Republican and competed against Rubio in the primary.
Crist also struggled to explain why he has changed his mind about issues and people — for example, calling former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin "extreme" when she visited Orlando on Saturday even though he campaigned with her in 2008.
"In order to help my friend John McCain, for the record," Crist said, adding, "If things change, you need to change what you're looking at, and understand that you have to have an independent thinker to be a good United States senator. You know, facts change all of the time."
The discussion of the governor's flip-flopping brought a smile to Rubio. "He changes his position on the issue because he wants to win the election," he said.
Crist started talking over Rubio, accusing him of steering "tax money to get two jobs at a university and a hospital." Rubio got a no-bid teaching job at Florida International University and a consulting contract with Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami after term limits forced him to step down as speaker of the Florida House in 2008.
"Any time we get into the issues, the governor wants to turn it into something else because he's wrong on the issues," Rubio said.
Crist kept going, demanding that Rubio release all of the statements from his Republican Party of Florida-issued credit card. Rubio held the card for about four years as a party leader, and two years of records show he frequently used it for personal expenses.
"This is just one litany of falsehoods after another," Rubio said, before trying to defuse Crist's attacks by calling him a heckler.
The candidates also clashed on immigration in response to a question about how the federal government should handle the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants.
"I don't believe we can grant amnesty because I think it's unfair to the people who have entered this country legally," Rubio said, though he added, "I've never advocated that we round people up."
Pressed by CNN's Crowley for a clear answer, Rubio said illegal immigrants should have to return to their homelands and try to re-enter the country under an improved system.
Crist took issue with Rubio's reference to "amnesty," saying he favored the legislation backed by former President Bush that offered an "earned path to citizenship." Meek also favored the legislation spearheaded by Sen. Mel Martinez, whose early retirement paved the way for the current Senate race.
Rubio refused to budge from his longheld position that President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan was a mistake, even though it saved the jobs of tens of thousands of public school teachers and firefighters in Florida.
"I don't believe the economy grows because of government spending," Rubio said. "The economy grows because people have the confidence to start a business or expand an existing business."
Both Meek and Crist said the spending was necessary to prevent further economic backsliding. Said Meek: "What Mr. Rubio is talking about is not a solution. It's ideology."
The three candidates are slated to face off one last time before the Nov. 2 election, at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Orlando.
Beth Reinhard can be reached at email@example.com.