During their first debate U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and challenger Bill Grant focused on the federal deficit, which explains why there were no fireworks.
The deficit is important, everyone agrees. As debate fodder it set off no blazes.
The firefight that could have developed never did.
Grant never attacked Graham for taking money from special interests, having political ties to the chairman of the failed CenTrust Savings Bank or "voting with Ted Kennedy 75 percent of the time." Those are attacks he has made on the stump.
Graham never mentioned Grant's "liberal voting record" in Congress before he switched to the Republican Party, his name on the list of congressional check bouncers or polls that show little support even from Republicans. Graham's staff often points out those factors.
The liveliest exchanges came on the deficit, an issue on which the candidates are not far apart. Both favor a balanced budget amendment, and Graham breaks with Democratic congressional leaders to support a line-item veto of budget expenditures.
"Some things never change," Grant said. "Bob's the conservative candidate and liberal senator."
Grant said Graham has voted 440 times for more additional spending than he has cuts.
Graham said the proposal Grant issued this week to cut spending was a "meat ax approach" that would devastate the environment and scrap programs people want, including public television.
It wasn't the kind of skirmish that would change votes, or even play well on the nightly news. That's bad for Grant. The incumbent Democrat holds a hefty lead in opinion polls and has $3-million more to spend than Grant.
Democratic Party chairman Simon Ferro said Graham was doing Grant a favor by debating him and increasing the underdog's visibility. Three more debates are planned, including one Friday that will be televised statewide.
A former congressman who lives in Tallahassee, Grant needs to make a splash in the debates if he is to chip away at Graham's lead. Grant campaign manager Richard Pinsky joked before the debate that his candidate needs to pick up 4.75 points per debate to pull even with Graham.
The debate forum allowed opportunities for candidates to direct questions at each other.
The day before, Grant presented a list of 120 cuts to save $760-billion. He asked Graham to list his spending cuts or say whether he would raise taxes.
Graham ticked off a four-point approach to reduce defense spending, cut health-care costs, raise taxes (on those making more than $200,000 a year, he said later) and stimulate the economy.
"The question was, do you favor a tax increase and would you give us a list of your proposed spending cuts," Grant said. "You didn't answer either one of those."
Graham skewered Grant for a piece of campaign literature that mentioned cutting entitlements. The senator pointed out that Social Security is the largest entitlement and suggested Grant had it on the block. Grant said it certainly is not his intention to "mess with" Social Security.
Grant's budget cuts, Graham said, would damage environmental protection programs.
"Do we want our air and water less clean?" he said. He defended public TV and radio, which Grant said he would whack.
"We've got some tough choices," Graham said, "and they don't lend themselves to meat-ax approaches."
Grant said after the debate he doesn't need to attack Graham to convey his message.
"What we wanted to do was show there is a distinct difference between the two of us," he said.
Said Graham: "The debate focused on issues, not on cliches or personal attacks."