After an uncomfortable two weeks of publicity over his 2007 trip to Cuba, Democratic Senate candidate Jeff Greene said Sunday that he was rethinking his opposition to the U.S. embargo and travel restrictions.
Greene, a Palm Beach real estate mogul, called efforts to squeeze the communist regime a "failed policy'' in his third and final faceoff with rival Kendrick Meek. The debate was broadcast live by WPLG-Ch. 10 in South Florida, home to a large and politically influential Cuban-American community.
"I'm thinking we need to take a close look at opening up travel and the embargo," Greene said. "We've hurt the impoverished people of Cuba. … I'm not saying let's open the doors tomorrow but I'm saying when I get to the Senate I want to take a close look."
Meek smirked and said he wasn't retreating from his support for the embargo, but he failed to remind voters that Greene had previously backtracked on the reason he took his 145-foot yacht to Cuba. Greene initially said he was part of a Jewish humanitarian mission but later said he stopped for emergency repairs.
Meek, a Miami congressman, also stumbled when responding to a question about the construction of a Muslim center in New York City near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks by Islamic terrorists. Meek declined to take a position; Greene said he opposes the mosque.
While previous match-ups between the candidates have centered on personal attacks, Sunday's debate was less acerbic and drew out some policy distinctions, nine days before the Aug. 24 primary.
The proposed $100 million Muslim center offered one such contrast. Greene echoed President Barack Obama's recent defense of religious freedom but said, "When those families go to mourn their losses, they shouldn't be looking at a mosque right there."
Meek punted: "I'm not going to step in front of a decision that's already been made in New York City."
The mosque wasn't the only issue in which Greene sought to set himself apart from Obama, who has fallen out of favor with most Florida voters. Asked about the president's economic stimulus plan, Greene said, "I'm a student of economics and I can tell you, Kendrick, the stimulus did not work. … It was not targeted enough on hiring by business."
Meek, who is expected to stand alongside Obama when he comes to Miami Beach on Wednesday for a fundraiser, pointed to the teaching and law enforcement jobs saved by the federal aid.
Overall, Greene was more effective in the hourlong forum. When he said he agreed with Meek in opposing Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigration, he brought the issue back to a central argument of his candidacy.
"This again is a failure of Kendrick Meek and the professional politicians in Washington," he said. "How did we get to the point of having 12 million illegal immigrants?"
However, Greene was forced onto the defensive on several issues. He denied that his yacht damaged a valuable coral reef off the coast of Belize, despite ample evidence and eyewitness accounts. He maintained that he has "zero tolerance'' for drugs on his yacht, though former boxing star Mike Tyson has described raucous sex parties during a summer in which they spent a lot of time traveling together.
Greene was also asked to explain whether he sufficiently sounded the alarm about the real estate meltdown while reaping half a billion dollars from widespread mortgage foreclosures.
For his part, Meek struggled to offer a strong defense of his request for $4 million in budget earmarks for a blighted Miami neighborhood after the proposed developer paid his mother as a consultant.
Meek is getting a minor assist from a new political committee called Florida Is Not For Sale, which began airing an attack against Greene in South Florida last week. The congressman is anticipating a big shot in the arm today when former President Bill Clinton is slated to headline rallies for him in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.