WEST PALM BEACH — You know a campaign is getting down and dirty when one candidate tells his opponent to quit insulting his mother.
"How dare you attack the character of my mother,'' demanded Kendrick Meek of rival Jeff Greene on Tuesday, in the first debate between the major Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate. "How dare you, Jeff Greene.''
Greene didn't apologize for attacking the Miami congressman for seeking earmarked federal funds from a developer who had hired Meek's mother, former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek. Kendrick Meek denies any wrongdoing and says he didn't know developer Dennis Stackhouse — now facing fraud charges — had given his mother $90,000 and a Cadillac Escalade for consulting work.
"I'm not attacking your mother,'' Greene retorted in the debate that was sponsored by the Palm Beach Post and shown on its website. "I'm attacking you.''
It was one of many testy exchanges during their 90-minute encounter, as polls show Greene pulling even with the longtime Democratic front-runner after lavishing $4 million on television ads in seven weeks. For a real estate mogul who has never served in public office going up against a seasoned politician, Greene held his own. Both had awkward moments; both scored with one-liners.
"You are a special interest,'' Meek shot back at Greene, a billionaire who has vowed not to take "one penny'' from special interests but has delayed disclosing his own financial interests.
Personal attacks, pie-in-the-sky claims and wild exaggerations characterized the debate, though the candidates agreed on most issues.
Greene, 55, blamed Meek — a consistent opponent of expanding offshore oil drilling — for the gulf spill because he had failed to regulate the industry and received campaign money from BP. Meek, 43, condemned Greene for the economy's collapse because he made hundreds of millions of dollars betting on the subprime mortgage implosion.
"On nights that Floridians went to bed praying that they could save their homes and save the equity in their homes, Mr. Greene was praying that they would lose their homes so he could profit and become a billionaire,'' Meek charged.
Greene, slouching in his seat and smirking at Meek's attacks, said, "I absolutely in no way regret'' the investments that made him a billionaire. He countered that the housing crisis was caused by lax oversight by Congress.
"You failed to regulate the banks, and that's the reason we are where we are,'' Greene told Meek. "You are responsible for the housing crisis, you and the other corrupt politicians in Washington.''
And the backbiting continued. Meek trashed Greene's Democratic credentials because he ran for Congress as a Republican in 1982 and didn't register as a Democrat until 2008.
"This is a Democratic primary to elevate a Democratic voice in the general election,'' Meek said. "My credentials go far and deep.''
During one part of the debate in which both candidates voiced their commitment to Israel's security, Greene said, "I'm a Democrat, but I'm an independent Democrat. I don't agree with the way the president, frankly, has handled Israel. . . . While we've been spinning our wheels trying to engage (Iran), they've been spinning 3,000 centrifuges a day purifying uranium for nuclear weapons.''
Asked to describe his own "carbon footprint,'' Meek said his family owns a Ford Hybrid and a minivan. Greene acknowledged driving a Cadillac Escalade — the same kind of car he has mocked Meek's mother for driving — but didn't mention his yacht, three planes or other cars parked at his $24 million mansion.
"I ride my bicycle around Palm Beach all the time,'' he volunteered.