MIAMI — No clear winner emerged from the first televised standoff among the major U.S. Senate candidates, leaving Republican frontrunner Marco Rubio on steady ground after Friday's debate hosted by Univision, the nation's largest Spanish-language television network.
But the GOP nominee was forced to take positions on several issues that likely put him at odds with the network's audience. Hispanic voters represent about 13 percent of the Florida electorate.
Rubio favors making English the official language of the United States and upholding Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigrants; he opposes allowing undocumented workers to earn legal status or granting citizenship to their children who attend college or serve in the military.
"What they're offering now is a bill that would in essence grant amnesty to 2 million people," Rubio said of the so-called DREAM Act, which Senate Democrats are seeking to bring up in a politically charged debate next week. "It's a cynical way to play politics with the lives of real people. … This is what always happens with Hispanic voters in this country, they manipulate them come election time."
Both of Rubio's rivals, Gov. Charlie Crist and Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek, declared their support for the DREAM Act and more sweeping immigration reform, and their aversion to the Arizona law and English-only proposals. The Arizona law requires police to question suspected illegal immigrants, which critics say will lead to racial and ethnic profiling.
"We aren't supposed to discriminate against people because of what they might look like," Crist said. "I'm astounded that Speaker Rubio embraces this law."
Rubio tried to make it clear to the audience that he is one of them, even if they don't always agree. He repeatedly invoked his own family's immigrant success story, saying his Cuban parents "lost their country'' and moved to the United States to make a better life for their children.
Rubio ignored Meek, whose rise in the polls coincides with Crist's dip, and focused on trying to undermine the governor, who cast off his GOP affiliation four months ago on the verge of a primary election defeat.
"Everybody sees what you're doing. Everybody gets it," Rubio said, delivering the line as a stinging rebuke. "For 20 years, you ran as a Republican on the same things you are now criticizing me for."
Meek, a Miami congressman running third in the polls, showed the most emotion of any candidate. He sought to connect with recession-weary voters, one underdog to another, with a feisty demeanor.
"They've stood up on behalf of special interests, on behalf of the super-wealthy their entire careers," Meek said of Crist and Rubio, who both support preserving tax cuts for families who earn more than $250,000. "I stand for people who work every day."
Describing himself as an "independent, honest broker," Crist tried to capitalize on voters' disgust for politics-as-usual.
"What we've seen here is a lot of finger-pointing, a lot of complaining and a lot of bickering like we see in Washington every day," Crist said. "If you want more of what you see in Washington, you can elect either of them."
Crist's strategy could have been more effective if Rubio and Meek had been at each others' throats. But they mostly piled on Crist, making it difficult for him to come across as the fresh alternative.
Just hours before the debate, the Republican Party of Florida released an audit of party spending that accused Crist of spending thousands of dollars in party money on family trips to Disney World and New York City. The audit made only a passing reference to Rubio's use of the party-issued American Express for personal expenses when he was House speaker.
"I'm an honest guy," Crist said. "If someone has questions to answer about what happened at the Republican Party of Florida, it is not your governor, it's your speaker of the House."
Miami Herald reporter Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.