ORLANDO — Marco Rubio got the frontrunner treatment in a combative U.S. Senate debate Wednesday night, with both his rivals attacking him as a right-wing extremist out of step with Florida voters.
"It's abundantly clear that there's an extreme right faction in the Republican Party," said independent candidate Charlie Crist, who defected from the GOP five months ago. "I'm the only candidate that can both win in November and crash that tea party in Washington."
"You want to take us back to Dick Cheney days," added the Democratic nominee, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, describing Rubio as a "radical'' who won't stand up for middle-class Floridians.
Rubio, the former state House speaker from Miami, held his own and cast the race as a choice between two status quo candidates or a Republican who will stand up to President Barack Obama's agenda.
"If you like Obamacare, if you like the stimulus plan, you can vote for Charlie Crist or Kendrick Meek. I'm probably not your candidate," Rubio said.
Rubio is comfortably leading Crist in recent polls, and his basic goal over the next four weeks is to run out the clock and avoid significant mistakes. He didn't make any in the first prime-time televised debate in the race, but he also took some sharp jabs over his own record as a fiscal conservative and on divisive issues such as abortion and Social Security.
Crist charged at Rubio throughout the debate, but didn't come across as angry. Meek cast himself as the scrappy defender of working people.
The candidates sat side-by-side around a triangular table, but their close proximity did nothing to deter them from taking tough shots at each other throughout the lively hourlong debate.
Gov. Crist wants voters to see the race as a two-man contest between him and Rubio, and he was particularly aggressive. He said Rubio wants to overturn Roe vs. Wade and stood by an ad by his campaign warning seniors that Rubio wants to raise the retirement age for Social Security.
"You haven't been drinking the Kool-Aid, my friend, you've been drinking too much tea," Crist said, referring to Rubio's support from the conservative tea party movement.
Rubio noted that his proposal would not apply to anyone over 55 and that his 80-year-old mother relies on Social Security.
"For you to suggest that I would somehow advocate ideas that would harm her is outrageous and a blatant lie," Rubio snapped.
"The facts are the facts and facts are stubborn things," Crist retorted.
Meek, who trails well behind both Rubio and Crist in recent polls, noted that both candidates had advocated for private savings accounts in the past.
Rubio scoffed that neither of his opponents had a real proposal for keeping Social Security solvent.
"How about standing up for the middle class," Meek retorted.
"That's not a plan," Rubio said.
It was the second debate between the Senate candidates, and it was moderated by Good Morning America co-host George Stephanopoulos, Brendan McLaughlin from WFTS-Ch. 28 in Tampa and Craig Patrick of WFTV. The debate was televised on ABC affiliates.
Just hours before the debate, Rubio announced he had set a new fundraising record in Florida by collecting more than $5 million in the past three months. That leaves him with $5.5 million for the homestretch. Rubio's jaw-dropping haul will go a long way toward eroding the fundraising advantage that Crist has long enjoyed.
He and Meek have not yet released their latest contribution totals. But in a sign that the Rubio camp may see the race tightening, Rubio began airing his first ad of the race attacking Crist. The spot follows three consecutive negative commercials by Crist. In the ad, Rubio speaks directly to the camera about his rival, calling him a fraud and a flip-flopper.
Crist is relying heavily on winning significant Democratic support, but every televised debate raises the profile of Meek. The governor dropped out of the Republican Party after falling well behind Rubio in the primary and is now walking a tricky line to win support from both parties.
''If you want someone on the far right you've got Marco Rubio, someone on the far left there's Kendrick Meek," Crist said.
Crist accused Rubio, the former House speaker, of putting "pork'' in the budget and steering money to Florida International University, which gave Rubio a no-bid job after he left office, and Jackson Memorial Hospital, which gave him a consulting contract.
"I had to cut 500 million out of the pork you sent me," Crist said.
Rubio countered that he proposed smaller budgets than the governor did and repeatedly accused Crist of distortions and lies.
"Unbelievable," Crist scoffed at one point.
Meek, trying to fend off Crist's courtship of Democrats, is one of the few major Democratic candidates in the country eagerly touting his support for President Obama's agenda, and actually looked pleased when Rubio accused him of being a Nancy Pelosi liberal.
Rubio declined to say he would support more funding for high speed rail in Florida: "Nothing is more important then dealing with this long-term debt issue. That's a priority over virtually everything our country faces.''
That prompted Meek to accuse Rubio of being willing to let Floridians "sit in traffic for the next 20 years."
As for Crist, Meek said he "stands on a wet paper box … because you don't know where he is."
The candidates are slated to face off four more times before the Nov. 2 election, though absentee ballots are already available. Early voting begins Oct. 18.