THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Oct. 26, 2010……Gov. Charlie Crist spent most of Tuesday’s night final U.S. Senate debate defending his decision to run as an independent, which set the stage in the first place for what has been until the final week of campaigning an unpredictable three-way race with Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek.

The candidates, debating for a sixth-and-final time in Orlando, fielded questions about foreclosures, social security, gay adoptions, the national political environment and foreign affairs. But they spent about half their hour-long debate, which was sponsored by Orlando’s WESH Channel 2, talking about Crist, who is currently running second in most polls as independent, having left the GOP in April after trailing Rubio in the Republican primary.

Early in the encounter, moderator David Gregory, host of NBC’s “Meet The Press,” showed Crist a copy of the 2008 Republican platform, which he said contained positions on issues like abortion and stem cell research Crist now calls extreme.

“Here’s a copy of the Republican Party platform in 2008, both those views are well spelled out…so were you unaware that was an entrenched part of the Republican Party or somehow did you change for political expedience,” Gregory asked.

“I haven’t changed, what changed is the Republican Party pushed those issues so much more to the forefront now,” Crist replied. “I think everybody on the planet understands the Republican Party has gone hard right. No question about it. All you have to do is look at some of the other candidates around the country. ”

Crist has long sought to tie Rubio to other national candidates who have ridden the fervor of Tea Party disaffection with Democrats in Washington to the verge of what is widely-expected to be big a Election Night for Republicans.

But Rubio called Crist’s claims “silly.”

“We were debating six months ago on Fox News,” he said. “The governor has consistently run his entire career as a Republican. Everybody kind of sees it for what it is. What voters deserve is that we not spend a tremendous amount of time trying to convince people that he switched because he found this new path. The reality is he switched because he couldn’t win the primary.”

Meek, who has sought to win back Democratic voters who have embraced Crist’s candidacy because they believe he is more viable against Rubio, quickly chimed with a similar analysis of Crist’s independent bid.

“I’m a Democrat for sure, you can count on that,” Meek said. “The kind of ideology that Marco Rubio was talking about and that Charlie Crist embraced until just a few weeks ago got us in this mess. ”

Meek, who is running in third-place in most major polls, has done little to hide his contempt for Crist’s conversions to his party’s positions on many issues as the two have fought over traditionally-Democratic voters. When the topic of the debate turned to gay adoptions, which Crist opposed as a candidate for governor in 2006 but now supports, Meek made his dissatisfaction plain.

“Gay adoptions didn’t change for me when I started running for the United States Senate. I’ve always been for it,” Meek said. “As a public policy person, I’m really bothered by some of his positions. When I hear flip-flops in the hallway, I think it’s the governor walking down the hall.”

Meek said he disagrees with Rubio about most issues, but he did not doubt where the former House Speaker stood on them.

Crist dismissed the criticism as the premise for his independent candidacy.

“I said back in April when I went independent that come September and October, I was going to have two cannons aimed at me, and clearly that’s happened,” he said. “That’s part of the deal; I’m up to the task, that’s alright. But the people at home understand that sometimes people change their minds about different things and all kinds of issues. But there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s called being honest.”

Crist said he was “less judgmental and more tolerant” now than when he was as a Republican. He added that as attorney general, he had to enforce the ban on gay adoptions because it was state law. The ban was eventually struck down by a Tallahassee court and the decision was upheld by appellate court.

“One of the duties of the attorney general is to enforce the laws on the books. That was a law that was on the books, so I was duty-bound by my oath to enforce it,” he said.

Crist, Rubio labeled a “heckler” by Rubio in their last debate when the governor repeatedly tried to interrupt him with ethical allegations, did not take as many overt shots at the Miami Republican as he has in previous debates. However, he did manage to use an early question from Gregory about foreclosure to tweak Rubio, whose personal finances became a campaign issue when a condo he owned with state Rep. David Rivera in Tallahassee went in to foreclosure earlier this year.

“What we saw here in a real alarming way in Florida is because of the fact that we are so dependent on the housing market and tourism for our economy, what happened in the Sunshine State is our prices of our homes got inflated all over the state, and the bubble burst and that caused some real problems,” Crist said. “And it’s an epidemic. I mean, some at this table have faced…close to foreclosures.”

Rubio was not given a chance to respond to the subtle dig.

There was some agreement Tuesday when the topic turned to the Miami Heat’s chances of winning an NBA championship in basketball with the heralded acquisition of LeBron James and Chris Bosh. As the debate took place, however, the South Florida team with three fans running for U.S. Senate was getting off to a rough start against the Boston Celtics in its season opener.



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