Politics & Policy

Gloves Come Off for First Rubio-Crist-Meek Debate

Charlie Crist, standing at the middle podium during the first debate among the governor, Marco Rubio, and Kendrick Meek, continued to peddle the centrist, bipartisan rhetoric evident in his general-election campaign ads. “We have to realize that Republicans and Democrats both have good ideas that they can present to us,” he said. “Only I can talk about both in an honest way.”

In perhaps the most memorable moment of the debate, Rubio shot such rhetoric out of the air by turning from the audience and frankly addressing Crist.

“Governor, I’ve got to point something out. Let me say this in the most respectful way possible, but I want to be blunt,” Rubio said. “Everybody sees what you’re doing. Everybody gets it. For 20 years, you’ve run as a Republican, running on saying the things that you now criticize me for. Four months ago you were running against me as a Republican saying the things that you now criticize me for. You only changed parties and did this independent thing when you couldn’t win the Republican primary. And now you wake up every day, and you try to figure out what you could say or do to take votes away from Congressman Meek, so more Democrats will vote for you. But everybody sees it for what it is.”

Meek, too, got in on the action. “It’s gone beyond flip-flopping. For him to be the governor of the fourth-largest state in the union, throwing around blocks and saying on his commercials that he’s for Americans — I mean, we’re all for Americans,” Meek said after the debate. “But how we get there is not through soft music and a story-telling voice.”

The event was hosted by Spanish-language channel Univision, so a large portion of the debate centered around immigration policy. Rubio was weakest here, sidestepping questions such as whether he would support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the United States. Several times, the moderator interrupted him to push for a direct answer to the original question.

On the DREAM Act, Rubio said he identifies with the stories of those who would be covered under the proposal, but said the bill simply gives amnesty to 2 million people. He then hit Democrats over the way the legislation has been handled.

“It’s a cynical way to play politics with the lives of real people. Harry Reid and the Democrats have been in charge of the Senate for almost two years now, and they bring this up, in this manner, in a defense bill, at the last second, on the eve of this election, because he wants to win an election in Nevada. And this is what always happens with Hispanic votes.”

Meek called out the dodge. “I will stand up and make sure that this act is passed in the United States Senate,” he said. “I’m not Harry Reid — I’m Kendrick Meek. And I’m going to stand up on behalf of the people of this state.”

Crist was more left than right on the issue, stating support for both the DREAM Act and and comprehensive reform including amnesty. “I also believe that we do have to have a pathway to citizenship — we are a nation of immigrants. Senator Mel Martinez, Senator John McCain, even President Bush agreed this was the right way to go,” he said.

Unlike in an interview last month during which Crist said he would have voted for the health care reform bill, the governor found a different line today, saying he wouldn’t have supported it because it was “too big, too expensive.” But Crist hedged, too, by pointing out what he sees as positive portions of the bill.

“One of the best parts, in fact, is that it takes away what I call ‘health insurance discrimination,’” Crist said. “In other words, if you have a pre-existing injury, you couldn’t get coverage.”

All of the questions were asked in Spanish, then translated into earpieces worn by the candidates, but according to debate rules, answers were to be given in English.

Rubio, oddly enough, as the only candidate fluent in Spanish, was the only one who followed the rule to a T. Asked about making English the official language, Crist said, in Spanish, “I studied a couple of years of Spanish in school,” and then laughed as his Spanish was translated back into English in his earpiece. Meek tried to relate to Hispanic viewers too, but flubbed when it was unclear whether he was calling Crist a pastry using the word “pastelito,” or a postcard using the word “postalito.”

Regardless of his Spanish, Meek suggested he is a better choice for the Hispanic community than Rubio.

“I don’t think a Hispanic surname qualifies you to be saying you’re the top representative on behalf of the Hispanic community,” Meek said after the debate.

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