On the eve of a pivotal debate in the U.S. Senate race, Gov. Charlie Crist on Tuesday pulled out a tried and true political weapon against front-runnner Marco Rubio: sounding the alarm on Social Security.
Crist's new television ad assails Rubio for advocating an increase in the retirement age to qualify for federal benefits. Social Security, a lifeline in the state's large senior population, is considered sacred ground in Florida politics.
"Work longer, get by on less, that's the Marco Rubio retirement plan," ominously warns the ad, launched on the same day Crist made his second visit to a Pembroke Pines retirement community in as many weeks.
Rubio has, in fact, suggested raising the retirement age to ease the burden on the pension fund but said reforms should affect only younger workers. The ad's lack of context drew a sharp rebuke from one of Rubio's prominent supporters, former Gov. Jeb Bush.
"Charlie Crist should be ashamed of his false attack against Marco Rubio on Social Security," Bush said in a statement released by the Rubio campaign. "Charlie Crist is purposely trying to scare seniors in order to win votes."
The backbiting laid the groundwork for the first live televised debate between Crist, Rubio and Kendrick Meek, to be broadcast at 7 tonight on ABC stations in Florida and moderated by Good Morning America co-anchor George Stephanopoulos.
The race so far has largely amounted to Rubio and Meek piling on Crist, a dynamic that appears to be helping Rubio more than it is helping Meek, recent polls show. A TCPalm.com-Zogby poll released Tuesday showed Rubio receiving 39.2 percent of the vote, compared with 33 percent for Crist and only 17.6 percent for Meek, the Democratic nominee.
Meek and Crist, a Republican-turned independent candidate, have been locked in a struggle for the lion's share of the Democratic vote. In the meantime, the Republican nominee has surged to a double-digit lead in some polls.
"Marco Rubio is in safe territory," John Zogby said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
''It's boiling down to Crist and Meek cannibalizing each other before the election and no damage being done to Rubio. … It's not likely that Crist is going to make gains among Republicans without Rubio committing something horrific."
Gaffes and memorable one-liners in campaign debates do have a history of making a difference in Florida. The major Senate candidates are slated to face off at least four times before Nov. 2.
In a sign that Meek may start directing more of his attention to Rubio, he joined Crist on Tuesday in blasting the Republican nominee's position on Social Security. He accused Rubio of wanting to "privatize" Social Security, though Rubio has backed away from his earlier advocacy of investing part of the pension fund.
The Meek campaign also issued a news release Tuesday noting that former Vice President Dick Cheney has endorsed Rubio.
"We have started a major focus on Mr. Rubio," Meek said before greeting union workers at Miami International Airport on Tuesday. "He's an extreme, right-wing candidate that got his birth in the tea party."
Ben Pollara, a Democratic fundraiser backing Meek, urged him to keep his sights on Rubio to try to shake up the race.
"There's always been this mentality in the Meek campaign that Charlie was the enemy," Pollara said. "Marco is the enemy, and they need to start treating him as such."
Rubio's position on Social Security fits into his opponents' broader pitch that he is out of step with Florida voters.
But the seminal issue of the 2010 campaign has been the state's unemployment rate — higher than the national average and still defying President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan. Rubio's attacks on Crist for supporting Obama's spending plan have dovetailed with growing disenchantment with the administration.
Rubio doesn't even have to spend money bashing Crist anymore; others will do it for him. A political committee started by Republican strategist Karl Rove on Tuesday became the latest group to launch an anti-Crist television blitz.
"The choice is clear. Marco Rubio stood up for taxpayers by saying no to the failed Obama stimulus. Charlie Crist embraced it," says the spot sponsored by American Crossroads.
After today's debate, Rubio is embarking on a "Road to Reclaim America" bus tour. The four-day trip with his wife, four children and mother will start in Jacksonville and end in his hometown of West Miami.
The only other debate between the three candidates so far was a taped forum broadcast at 11 p.m. Sept. 17 by Univision. The Spanish language network says 83,000 people watched.