TALLAHASSEE — Facing a roomful of reporters Wednesday, Florida's Republican candidates for U.S. Senate offered a glimpse of what's ahead in their campaigns when the heat is on: dodge and weave.
Former House Speaker Marco Rubio, who surged ahead in the polls this week and got a boost in fundraising, refused to answer several questions about his record from reporters and editors at the annual Associated Press meeting. Instead, he talked about his anti-government, anti-tax agenda while offering few specifics.
His opponent, Gov. Charlie Crist, offered his trademark rosy view of state government, highlighted his plan to cut $100 million in corporate taxes and boost the education budget with money from a troubled gambling pact.
When asked how he would fill the state's $3 billion budget hole, Crist offered few specifics: Rely on more federal money and make unspecified cuts, he said.
Both candidates took swipes at each other.
"I don't have the luxury of going around the state and politicking all day," Crist said referring to Rubio, who is no longer in public office. "I am the governor of Florida and I am going to fight for the people every day."
Rubio ducked questions about whether he would support the use of federal money to bring high-speed rail to Florida, but slammed Crist for endorsing the federal stimulus money last year, saying he was "not informed."
"When Charlie Crist lined up behind the stimulus package, he cut the legs out from every other Republican who was trying to find an alternative," Rubio said.
Facing questions for the first time as a front-runner, Rubio also avoided offering details about his role as a registered lobbyist, representing clients before Miami-Dade County while he was a legislator.
He called questions about whether he supports releasing the Republican Party of Florida's credit card expenses "an internal party issue'' and said questions about what he knew about indicted former House Speaker Ray Sansom's budget deal were "false distractions."
Rubio also refused to answer whether his no-bid job at Florida International University was similar to Sansom's no-bid job. "I'm proud of my service at Florida International University," he said.
He repeatedly deflected the grilling, saying they were "side issues'' and detracted from the primary issues of the campaign.
"I'm running for the U.S. Senate because I think our country is in trouble," he said.
Crist and Rubio were followed by a parade of the state's top public officials — including Attorney General Bill McCollum, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, House Speaker Larry Cretul and Senate President Jeff Atwater. Only Cretul isn't on the statewide ballot seeking higher office.
McCollum and Sink, the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor, also traded barbs.
McCollum said called Sink a "national Democrat'' who thinks it is the government's responsibility to create jobs. "It's not government that creates jobs. It's the private sector," McCollum said.
Sink's campaign circulated an eight-page circular before McCollum arrived, criticizing his votes as a 20-year member of Congress on issues such as opposing a higher minimum wage and supporting an increased national debt.
"I'm proud of my record as a congressman," McCollum said, listing only two exceptions: He "naively'' opposed a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and he backed President Ronald Reagan's increase in taxes.
McCollum spoke on a day when a new Quinnipiac University poll shows him with a 10-point lead over Sink. McCollum attributed the poll advantage to the work of the attorney general's office on issues such as chasing after child predators and street gangs.
Sink attributed it to McCollum's name recognition and the fact that she has run for office only once while McCollum "has been on the ballot 13 or 14 times."
Sink and McCollum both said they will oppose any legislative plan to open Florida's coasts to drilling between 3 and 10 miles out.
McCollum said it would "terrorize our beaches," while Sink said the plan wasn't offshore drilling but "near-beach drilling."
The third candidate for governor, Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, presented herself as the outsider.
"There is a great dissatisfaction out in the electorate right now," she said. "They don't think elected officials are listening to them."
Staff writers Steve Bousquet, Shannon Colavecchio, John Frank and Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.