WASHINGTON — Fox News Sunday cast it as a "rough and tumble battle," and for 40 minutes, Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio gave a national audience just that, arguing about a lot of things that ultimately were about two: money and President Barack Obama.
It was Gov. Crist, who has worked hard to cultivate a nice-guy image, immediately and aggressively questioning Rubio's character over reports he misused Republican Party money and a campaign "slush fund" for "personal enrichment."
Crist riffed on haircuts and minivan repairs and double-billed plane trips.
And it was Rubio who, in a more measured but equally persistent way, deflected the attacks with his own — on a bloated federal government, the $789 billion stimulus package and all things Obama.
"You just don't get it," Rubio said to Crist, who supported the stimulus, during their U.S. Senate primary debate televised live Sunday morning from Washington.
"This campaign is not about you and it's not about me," Rubio said. "It's about the people watching this program, that are watching their country being fundamentally redefined by this administration and this Congress."
The lofty approach of Rubio and the in-your-face hammering of Crist made for an engaging debate, their first in a race that has gotten increasingly bitter. Crist, once so far ahead that Rubio's bid was almost universally viewed as quixotic, now trails the 38-year-old former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.
Nothing illustrated that reversal more than when debate host Chris Wallace reminded Crist he is down double digits in polls and about the talk he'll drop out of the primary and run as an independent.
A stern Crist replied, "I'm running as a Republican" and promptly invoked Ronald Reagan, as he frequently does.
"I don't ever recall Reagan being questioned about running as an independent," shot back Rubio, seated inches from his rival, a strained civility running through the debate.
Sunday raised a new difference between the two candidates. Rubio advocated raising the age at which people can get Social Security, which is headed toward insolvency, and changing the cost of living adjustment.
"The idea of having a higher age for people to be able to be eligible for Social Security really flies in the face of an awful lot of my fellow Floridians," replied Crist, 53. He said he would attack waste and fraud, a solution Wallace noted would have limited effect.
Repeatedly throughout the debate, Wallace had to fight Crist to stay on topic. But Crist continuously turned attention to Rubio's spending.
"I view public service as a calling, something you do to try to help other people," Crist said. "Unfortunately, recent news accounts in Florida have come out that indicate, in fact, that Speaker Rubio views public service as a way to enhance his personal enrichment."
A series of stories in the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald have detailed how Rubio used an American Express card issued by the Republican Party of Florida for personal items and failed to account for all spending from a political fund. He also double-billed the state and party for eight flights between Tallahassee and his home in South Florida.
Rubio called the allegations false and "outrageous" and said he has paid for personal items.
"You know he claims that it's all accounted for, that these allegations are not true. They're absolutely true," Crist said, noting $34,000 in expenses from the political fund that were not reported.
Rubio dwelled on a much larger figure — the $789 billion federal stimulus.
He said the race could be summed up as choice between a candidate who would have fought for a less costly stimulus or a candidate who stood on stage with Obama in Fort Myers and embraced the package.
"Everybody knows that you won't stand up to the Obama agenda because just a year ago you were campaigning for it," Rubio said.
Crist said he would have joined the three Senate Republicans who supported the stimulus and said he accepted the funds — with the cooperation of the GOP-led Florida Legislature — because there was no alternative.
"As governor, you've got to make tough decisions," he said. Rubio has acknowledged that, as governor, he would have taken some of the money.
But the focus Sunday was on their role in Washington. Rubio cut a hard line, saying he would be happy to work with the president and Democrats — if they change the agenda to tax cuts.
Crist said he would be open to compromise, if the end result is good for Florida. "I am a pragmatic, common-sense conservative, always have been."
Another clash came over immigration.
Wallace noted that while Rubio was speaker in 2007, a number of bills that would have cracked down on illegal immigrants, did not move in the House. Rubio suggested it was not his doing, saying members were focused on other things during the 60-day session. Crist needled Rubio on whether he tried to get the chairman of the responsible committee to move the bills along.
"Want to answer that one?" Crist said. Rubio did not.
Sometimes, Crist pushed too hard, embellishing his record and trying to undercut Rubio's.
The governor asserted that he had signed off on the largest tax cut in Florida history, with a package of property tax reductions. (PolitiFact Florida has ruled this False.)
And he blasted Rubio's proposal, never enacted, to eliminate property taxes in exchange for a higher sales tax. The swap "would have been a massive tax increase," Crist said. (PolitiFact Florida ruled this False, too.)
Crist took his own heat when Wallace noted the current state budget he signed includes $2 billion in revenue from higher fees and a new cigarette tax. Crist called it a "user fee."
The debate had no clear winner, though Crist came across as strained in his unfamiliar role as attack dog, a man trying to right a troubled campaign. Rubio had his uncomfortable moments and looked inexperienced next to the white-haired Crist. But he clearly worked on appearing calm, even if he hurriedly scribbled notes during Crist's attacks.
Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com.