By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Oct. 24, 2010…….U.S. Senate candidates Marco Rubio, Charlie Crist and Kendrick Meek started out Sunday morning’s nationally televised debate covering familiar ground without some of the bravado that has characterized some of their earlier evening debates.
But before long, sparks were flying over the economy, the effect of the federal economic stimulus and whether tax cuts enacted during the Bush administration which favor wealthier Americans and corporations should be continue.
Also at issue was Crist’s decision to run as an independent, which created the fractious three-way race in the first place.
On each economic issue, Rubio accused Meek and Crist of both supporting the positions of the Obama administration, while Crist painted disagreements between them as evidence that his independent candidacy should be supported. On that score, however, it was Rubio and Meek who agreed, both saying the governor was a political opportunist who would say and do anything to win an election.
“The natural state of the economy is to grow and if it’s not growing, it’s because something is keeping it from growing,” Rubio said, casting blame for the stagnant economy in Florida and in the nation squarely at Democratically-controlled Washington, D.C.
“What Mr. Rubio is talking about is not a solution, its ideology,” Meek countered. “Mr. Rubio and Mr. Crist starts to stutter when we start talking about tax cuts for the super wealthy, (they argue) it’s OK to borrow that money.”
True to what he says is the premise of his independent candidacy, Crist split the difference between the two economic views.
“You have to have a two-pronged approach (to economic recovery). Number one, you need to cut taxes, you need to reduce the burden on small business, I think that’s what Marco and I agree on,” Crist said. “But I also agree with the congressman (Meek) when he talks about the fact that the Recovery Act saved 600,000 jobs among law enforcement officials, firefighters in the state of Florida, plus 200,000 educators.
“Common sense is what we need, and that’s what is lacking with the situation in Washington today,” said Crist, whose embrace of the federal stimulus helped erode his support among Republicans. “I see the fundamental problem on full display at this table.”
Crist, who left the Republican Party in April after badly trailing Rubio, has gotten under Meek’s skin – and ahead of him in the polls – by poaching Democratic votes that would go to the party’s nominee in most years. Prior to Sunday’s debate, Meek, who most polls show trailing both Crist and Rubio, promised to focus more on the front-running Rubio than the independent governor in an attempt to shake up the race that has seemingly settled in the final month of campaigning.
A poll released last week by Massachusetts-based Suffolk University showed Rubio comfortably ahead of both Meek and Crist. The former House Speaker took 39 percent to 31 percent for Crist, with Meek polling at 22 percent.
Still, Meek could not resist taking sharp shots at Crist for the switch. The governor said he left the GOP because the party moved too far to the right, but Meek quickly countered “We know why the governor is running as an independent – because he couldn’t beat Marco Rubio.”
The quip prompted rare agreement between Meek and Rubio.
“We don’t need to go down the torturous road of the governor’s changing positions. I think it’s well-documented,” Rubio said. “I do find it curious that he attacks me for positions he had like six months ago when we were having a debate on Fox News.”
Though Crist described himself as personally pro-life, he made an explicit appeal to pro-choice voters, saying Rubio “wants to – listen to me women watching – overturn Roe v Wade.”
Meek pounced, saying “the reason why the governor’s arguments don’t hold sway with the people of Florida is because he’s been all over the board.”
“He went down and nominated himself to sit here at this table. Now he wants to pick up Democratic ideas (and) talk about Roe v Wade,” Meek said. “I’m the only pro-choice candidate that’s sitting here. I don’t need to talk about a Supreme Court case, I have a 100 percent voting record when it comes down to a woman’s right to choose.”
Crist defended his position shifts, which have drawn ire this frenetic campaign season from Democrats and Republicans.
“I’m an old quarterback. I remember walking up to the line scrimmage and you see a blitz, you have to call an audible.”
But Rubio pressed the opportunism argument, saying “He changes his positions on the issue because he wants to win the election.”
The candidates also debated foreign policy and immigration, though those discussions produced fewer fireworks.
Another debate between the two candidates is scheduled for Oct. 26, hosted by WESH Channel 2 in Orlando. That encounter will be moderated by NBC “Meet the Press” host David Gregory.