It’s difficult to summarize a three-way royal rumble when there’s no consistent odd man out, and when two alternating competitors take turns ganging up on the third. Seated closely around a table at an Orlando TV studio, Marco Rubio, Charlie Crist and Kendrick Meek participated in just such a shifting battle Wednesday night.
Rubio, the frontrunner, held his ground and offered strong arguments for his policy positions. Kendrick Meek, lagging in the polls, let his passion show on the attack. And Charlie Crist, the middle man in more ways than one, appeared earnest and relatable in the way that only Charlie Crist can.
Crist spoke first and came out strong, suggesting the GOP had been hijacked by an “extreme right” and saying he would “crash that tea party in Washington.” He later told Rubio that, “You haven’t been drinking the Kool-Aid, my friend. You’ve been drinking too much tea.”
But there were holes in his talking points on two key issues. Crist voiced support for one of the most popular parts of President Obama’s health care reform bill, the rule against denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions, while at the same time denouncing the unpopular portion that makes it possible — the individual mandate. And Crist again presented amnesty for illegal aliens as some sort of undiscovered centrist route out of the Social Security crisis.
“If we can find a pathway to earned citizenship for those 11 to 14 million people they would be paying into the system,” Crist said.
It’s a claim that the facts don’t bear out, as noted by both of Crist’s opponents.
“There isn’t a single serious public policy observer in the country that thinks that’s a serious solution — in fact, it’s already been called nonsense,” Rubio said. Meek called the governor’s proposal “bizarre.”
But then the tables turned, and Meek was the lone voice not in favor of extending all of the Bush tax cuts.
“The Bush tax cuts are the current tax code. That’s what the taxes are now. And what I have said — and what a growing number of Democrats have begun to say — is that it’s a bad idea to raise taxes on anybody at this time in such an economic downturn,” Rubio said. “Our debt problem going forward is not because the American people aren’t paying enough in taxes. Our debt problem going forward is because Washington can’t control spending.”
Crist agreed, saying, “This is absolutely the wrong time to raise taxes on anybody.”
Rubio was in the hot seat over whether he would support federal funding for a planned high-speed rail between Orlando, Tampa and Miami, and didn’t explicitly address the project, but refused to budge on cuts in discretionary non-defense spending.
“There’s no shortage of good programs you can spend money on,” Rubio said. “But nothing is more important than dealing with this long-term debt issue. It is simply unsustainable.”
Rubio also defended his Social Security platform in the face of a recent Crist attack ad. He said that any reforms he advocates would only affect those 10 years or more away from retirement, and he brought up his 80-year-old mother, who relies on the program, as an example of who he wants to protect.
“For you to suggest that I would somehow advocate ideas that would harm her is outrageous — and a blatant untruth,” Rubio said.
Moderator George Stephanopolous occasionally played the role of Jerry Springer, pushing the debate participants toward each other. “He just called you a liar three times,” Stephanopolous said to Crist at one point. The debate did break some new ground, possibly because of his role as a national moderator, in that several minutes of discussion focused on foreign policy.
“We have to make sure that nuclear weaponry does not expand around the globe,” Crist said. “First and foremost we need to make sure that doesn’t happen with Iran and Ahmadinejad. He’s a madman.”
Rubio made similar remarks about the containment of Pakistan’s arsenal as reason to stay the course in the Middle East. “Afghanistan could become a base of operations to destabilize Pakistan,” Rubio said. “And that’s why it’s so critical that we succeed in Afghanistan.”
Also notable was the number of third parties brought into the discussion. Crist touted his support from Bob Dole and former Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler. Rubio connected Meek’s voting record with that of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And Meek named-dropped Dick Cheney no less than four times as a symbol of the type of leadership to which his opponents would return the country.
Meek was the most quotable candidate, saying that Crist, “stands on a wet paper box as it relates to the issues,” and describing him as the “Governor Wallace” of gay adoption.
“He stood in the schoolhouse door on this issue,” Meek said.
The question is whether it — or any of the arguments leveled tonight — will be enough to alter the race. Polls show Rubio’s lead has remained relatively steady, and with absentee ballots already in many voters’ hands, fewer votes remain with each passing day.