U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek's impressive victory over billionaire Jeff Greene in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate means voters will have three clear choices in November who offer distinctly different visions of where the country should be headed. The general election campaign should offer a rich policy debate in areas ranging from health care reform to energy to federal spending, and the outcome should provide the sharpest portrait of where Florida sits on the political spectrum.
Meek, who won Tuesday despite being far outspent and trailing for much of the race, is a reliable vote for the Obama administration's policies. Marco Rubio, who had only token opposition in the Republican primary, is the conservative former state House speaker who appeals to the tea party movement and opposes the president on most everything. Gov. Charlie Crist, who left the Republican Party to run as an independent, offers a third way as a populist with an agenda that reflects bits and pieces from both political parties.
For example, Rubio and Crist support permanently extending former President George W. Bush's tax cuts. Meek opposes it. But Crist and Meek support the federal stimulus plan, which Rubio opposes even though it has saved or created thousands of jobs in Florida. Crist, who tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Legislature to adopt strong renewable energy goals, supports a cap-and-trade energy plan. So does Meek. Rubio has shifted positions on cap-and-trade and now opposes it.
Health care reform also remains a hot issue. Meek supports the new health care reform law; Rubio wants to start over. Crist is in the middle, concerned about cuts to Medicare but supporting parts of the law such as the ban on rejecting coverage for patients with pre-existing conditions. All three candidates need to offer more than sound bites in key areas such as reducing the deficit, foreign policy and job creation.
As a well-financed, well-known independent candidate, Crist alters the dynamic of a traditional Senate race. Rubio will portray Crist as an Obama sympathizer and lump him with Meek. Meek will tie Crist and his Republican roots to Rubio. Both Meek and Rubio will attack Crist as indecisive, while Crist will label them as part of the partisan status quo in Washington.
It may be wishful thinking, but this Senate race should rise above the usual mudslinging. The country faces serious challenges, from reviving the economy to winding down two wars. These are three credible candidates who offer distinctly different policy positions, and there is too much at stake to stage a rerun of the negative primary campaigns.