Three candidates for Congress sculpted more detailed images of themselves on Monday as differences emerged over new topics such as medical marijuana, light rail and a military response in Syria.
A debate organized by the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9, St. Petersburg College and the AARP also sharpened the outlines the candidates already have projected on Obamacare, flood insurance and Social Security.
Republican David Jolly spoke of personal liberty and opposing big government; Democrat Alex Sink called herself a bipartisan problem-solver; and Libertarian Lucas Overby portrayed himself a pragmatist who believes in government reform.
"It was a great night for the voters," Jolly said afterward, in one of the few areas where he agreed with the Democrat.
Jolly reiterated his opposition to Obamacare and said it's hurting individuals and businesses.
"I think bigger government, higher taxes, are actually liberty issues . . . smaller government is the way to protect liberty," he said.
He noted that he had worked for years for the late Republican U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, and sought to differ himself from Sink by saying, "I believe we must empower families and individuals to make decisions for themselves. She believes government can make decisions for us."
But Sink said the Affordable Care Act is a program worth fixing and saving, telling the story of a 39-year-old man who looked her in the eye and happily told her he had health insurance for the first time in his life. She also said the law was preventing seniors from "that horrible doughnut hole," the gap in prescription drug coverage.
She also noted that she had a long history as a businesswoman and was the state's elected chief financial officer. In that role, she said, "I brought Republicans and Democrats together to solve problems."
The three stayed civil in the debate, but got the chance to put each other on the spot by asking a question.
Jolly asked Sink if she had talked to Democratic leadership in Washington, D.C., at the time "you decided to move to Pinellas County" in order to run for Congress. She said she had spoken to local Democrats and elected officials, but Jolly later said he did not think she had answered the question.
Surprisingly, when it was Sink's turn to question another candidate, she did not aim a zinger at Jolly but instead questioned Overby about his views.
Sink has skewered Jolly as a Washington lobbyist, but she did not bring up that term until about halfway through this debate.
With a fast-paced format limiting the candidates to short answers, the three delved into issues that haven't turned up much on the campaign trail previously.
On immigration reform, Jolly said he does not support a "pathway to citizenship." But Sink referred to the valedictorian of a high school who was an undocumented immigrant, and said he should be allowed to contribute to this country.
On humanitarian abuses in Syria, Jolly said President Baraack Obama's response was "an abject failure . . . we should have intervened right away." Sink said "I don't believe that we ought to put boots more on the ground," in the country. Overby said, "Us going in and killing more people is not going to solve anything."
Sink said she supports limited use of medical marijuana for those with health needs, but not to the extent there would be a "pot shop" on every corner. Jolly opposes the plan.
Jolly and Overby oppose the plan to bring a light rail system to Pinellas, which would call for an increase in the sales tax, but Sink said she supports light rail.
The candidates came back to more familiar topics such as Social Security and flood insurance.
Jolly said the government must provide Social Security as promised to everyone vested in the program, generally people who have worked more than 10 years. But he added, as he has before, that "long-term entitlement reform is the only way to reach a balanced budget."
Sink said, "I'm going to fight to protect Social Security and Medicare period." She said her daughter was in the audience, and "I don't want her to get to 65 years old and worry about whether she's going to have access to health care and whether she's going to have Social Security."
On flood insurance, Jolly explained that he backs a program that would expand the risk pool with people facing other types of national disasters, not just floods. Sink said one of her top priorities would be to ask FEMA how they came up with the plan that led to skyrocketing rates in Pinellas County. Overby said he supports a state plan designed to inject more private business into the flood insurance arena.
After the forum, Sink said her impression was "David Jolly's very extreme." Jolly said he thought Sink had failed to answer his question about whether she spoke to Democratic leaders in Washington.
About 200 people packed an auditorium at St. Petersburg College's Seminole campus to watch the debate. It will be rebroadcast at 11:30 a.m. Sunday on Bay News 9.