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In a brawling debate, U.S. Senate candidates tangle in Tampa

TAMPA — Republican U.S. Senate frontrunner Marco Rubio may be leading Charlie Crist by double digits but he didn't pull his punches when he ripped the governor as a phoney opportunist in a combative televised debate Friday.

"This notion, governor, that you switched to become an independent because you're some kind of a centrist who's looking out for the betterment of our country quite frankly is a fairy tale that only you believe,'' Rubio said after nonpartisan Crist promised to put Floridians ahead of party politics. "You're running as an independent not because you took a principled stand on issues; you're running as an independent because you took a poll."

Crist in turn cast former House Speaker Rubio as a political insider who can't be trusted.

"When he was speaker of the House he steered millions of dollars to a university and to a hospital, and after he left public office he got two jobs — not one, but two jobs — at $165,000 a year. The last guy who did that as a speaker is now indicted and facing trial,'' the governor said. "I mean it's unconscionable."

The dynamic in a three-way debate with Crist, Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek is much different from a traditional two-person faceoff, and on Friday each candidate over and over again claimed to be "the only candidate,'' who will do this or that: Rubio, the only one to stand up against the Obama administration agenda; Crist, the only one who will pursue common sense policies rather than blind party allegiance; and Meek, the only "true blue" Democrat to stand up for the middle class.

"I'm not here on behalf of the CEO's of the world. I'm for the everyday people," declared Meek, noting that he is the only candidate who opposes extending the Bush tax cuts for families earning more than $250,000.

The WTVT-Ch. 13 Tampa debate moderated by anchor John Wilson was the third of six. All three candidates turned in polished, aggressive performances, but the debate probably did not shake up the campaign, where Rubio is comfortably ahead of Crist, and Meek lagging well behind in third place.

The most blistering exchanges were between Crist and Rubio, who in a debate last week took repeated criticism from both Crist and Meek. This time Crist went even harder at Rubio, but never got the better of him.

The governor at one point quoted from the Democratic-leaning Tampa-based newspaper that recently endorsed Crist for Senate.

"La Gaceta talks about the fact that my opponent on the right has essentially blind ambition and — these are their words, not mine — that you've turned your back on your Hispanic family … as it relates to so many issues going down the line," Crist said.

Rubio looked livid.

"We're all used to hard knuckle politics in these debates, but that's quite frankly governor offensive and outrageous for you to talk about me turning my back on my Hispanic family,'' Rubio said. "Let me tell you about my family. My family worked very hard so that I could have opportunities they didn't have. My father worked 30, 40, 60, 70 hours a week as a bartender. My mother was a cashier, she was a stock clerk."

Seniors are the most reliable voters in off-year elections, and Meek made a point of noting that he's the only candidate who has never supported private investment accounts for Social Security (neither do Crist and Rubio any more). Crist repeatedly hammered Rubio for saying he is open to raising the retirement age.

"Those senior citizens have to pay for food, they have to pay utility bills, they have a lot of challenges they have to deal with,'' Crist said. "The last thing we need to do is any of these things that right-wing extremist Marco Rubio has talked about."

"You just looked into the camera and said something that is categorically false," Rubio responded, noting that Crist's political mentor, former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, has condemned Crist's attacks as false. "You know why I know it's shameful, governor? You can't even look at me as I tell you this."

Meek said both candidates are weak on the issue: "If they want to change Social Security, they're going to have to go through me. It's hard for the governor and hard for Speaker Rubio to talk about protecting Social Security because their right eyes twitch when they say it because they know they've had plans to privatize Social Security."

Crist said he left the party because it swung far to the right, particularly when he felt he needed to veto a controversial teacher pay bill and a bill requiring abortion-seeking women to pay for and review ultrasounds in order to have an abortion.

"You have a candidate here that literally wants to see Roe vs. Wade overturned as it relates to a woman's right to choose. As I've said, I'm pro-life but I don't believe in imposing my will on other people," Crist said of Rubio, who scoffed.

"Governor, I was there when you ran for governor four years ago. I remember this very clearly. You told a reporter that you would sign a law like the one in South Dakota, one of the most stringent abortion laws in the country," Rubio said.

Crist did tell a Panhandle priest he would support such a bill in Florida, but later clarified to the Associated Press he would only support that if it included exceptions for rape and incest.

Meek and Rubio each said they respected each other for standing by the principles — Meek said Rubio is a right-wing tea partier, Rubio said Meek is Nancy Pelosi Democrat — suggesting Crist lacks core values.

Still, some Democrats have fretted that the only way to beat Rubio is for Meek to drop out and let Crist be the only major alternative. Moderator Wilson asked Meek about that prospect.

"I will not drop out of this race for any reason," Meek said. "I am nominated by the Democrats of the state of Florida. I am in this race to run to be the next United States senator. And no, I am not running for second."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

In a brawling debate, U.S. Senate candidates tangle in Tampa 10/15/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 15, 2010 11:10pm]
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