The top contenders in Florida's U.S. Senate race struggled to distinguish themselves Tuesday in a debate that focused mainly on tax cuts and the campaign's increasingly negative tone as Election Day nears.
The most sparks in the relatively sedate forum flew between Democrat Bill Nelson and his Republican rival, U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum of Longwood.
McCollum began early to draw distinctions between himself and Nelson, while continuing his strategy of linking Nelson to various missteps of the Clinton-Gore administration.
McCollum supports more extensive tax cuts than Nelson does, and he attacked his rival's promises to reduce taxes while increasing spending on education and national defense.
"When you finish spending, we're going to be broke . . . I don't think this is the kind of big government people want to see," McCollum said.
Nelson rebutted the criticism with a string of numbers, flatly denying that his proposals would exceed the federal budget surplus.
"Well, in the first place, whoever figured that up didn't pass third-grade math," Nelson replied, adding that McCollum's tax cut proposal alone would wipe out most of the surplus.
The ballroom audience of about 200 people seemed equally receptive to McCollum and Nelson, and both candidates saw plenty of friendly faces. Cocoa Beach, on the Republican-dominated Space Coast, is part of Nelson's former congressional district.
Nelson, the current state insurance commissioner, graduated from nearby Melbourne High School and represented Brevard County in Congress for 12 years.
The debate was held by the Space Coast Tiger Bay Club, a political group, and lasted about 75 minutes. The debate also featured Reform Party candidate Joel Deckard and state lawmaker Willie Logan, who is running without party affiliation.
Logan stuck to the same issue through virtually the entire debate, harping on the "unfairness" of Nelson and McCollum's support for repealing the estate tax.
Later, as the frontrunners jousted over who would fight harder for federal money for local veterans, Logan captured the biggest laugh of the evening.
"I haven't heard anything that these guys don't like to spend money on, and then they want to give it all back to you (in tax cuts)," Logan said.
When Nelson struck another of his campaign themes _ painting McCollum as a right-wing extremist out of touch with mainstream voters _ his rival used the chance to scold Nelson for "slinging mud in the campaign right out of the gate."
Referring to a recent television advertisement paid for by Handgun Control Inc., McCollum told Nelson he should be ashamed of himself and should ask his supporters to remove the ad from the airwaves.
McCollum, who has long been opposed by gun-control advocates, says the recent ad distorts his record.
The format of the debate, in which each candidate could ask two questions of two different candidates, did not provide many chances for rebuttal. Eventually, Nelson returned to the gun issue while answering another question and accused McCollum of trying to hide from his largely pro-gun-rights record.
"Bill, you can't run from the truth . . . I don't have anything to do with that ad. That's an independent expenditure," Nelson said, to some hoots from the audience.
The candidates spent less time talking about two of the hotter issues in the Senate race: how to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare and how to shore up Social Security, which is expected to go bankrupt by 2037 if nothing is done.
Both McCollum and Nelson want to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, but they propose different ways to do it. Nelson would add coverage to traditional Medicare, while McCollum supports a less costly plan to enlist private insurers and health maintenance organizations to offer the benefit.
"I don't believe that one size fits all," McCollum said.
With election day less than two months away, McCollum trails Nelson in recent polls in the race to replace retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Connie Mack. The two are slated for at least three more debates before the Nov. 7 election.