Politics & Policy

Plenty of Accusations at Florida’s Raucous Senate Debate

With nine days left before the Nov. 2 election, the time to change minds is quickly running out, and Florida’s candidates for U.S. Senate know it. At a debate this morning in Tampa, Marco Rubio, Kendrick Meek and Charlie Crist were eager to make their points, so much so that all three ended up trying to talk at the same time.

“I’ve never had a heckler at the debate. I’ve always had them in the audience,” Rubio quipped at one point, after being repeatedly interrupted by Crist.

But the debate saw relatively few of the personal attacks that have characterized other meetings, and contained substantive discussion of several topics, including the merits of extending the Bush tax cuts.

Rubio has supported extending the current tax rates for all Americans, and said Democrats’ plan to increase taxes on those making more than $250,000 per year — in the midst of a recession — is a bad idea.

“Let me tell you what the tax increase that he’s proposing and he supports, who it targets,” Rubio said. “It targets individuals that comprise about 30 percent of consumer spending in America. It comprises about 50 percent of the small business taxes that are paid in our country. That’s corporations that pay on their personal rate.”

Meek would extend the tax cuts for the middle class, but characterized Rubio’s support for extending wealthier Americans’ tax rates as fiscally irresponsible. “The real issue is the fact that he’s saying that he’s a deficit hawk, but at the same time he’s saying, let’s give tax cuts,” Meek said. “It was a different economic time, Speaker, when the tax cuts were temporarily given at the beginning.”

When asked if they would support a compromise, each held his position, which offered Crist a chance to jump in.

“Sometimes you have to compromise,” Crist said. “I want all the tax cuts extended, but I also understand what the congressman understands, you’ve got to give relief to the people and they deserve it now.”

He characterized Rubio and Meek as ideologues, and used a football metaphor from his time as a college quarterback to make his point.

“You know, I remember calling a play in the huddle and literally, as you’re walking up to the line of scrimmage, you survey the defense, the facts and circumstances before you, see where the linebackers are, and realize that there’s going to be a blitz,” Crist said. “You’ve got to call an audible.”

Rubio shot back that he refuses to compromise on principles, and said that extending the full Bush tax cuts for all Americans has bipartisan support.

“I think that the votes are going to be there to extend this,” Rubio said. “The only thing standing in the way of it is the stubbornness of the White House and the liberal leadership of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.”

Crist shot back: “Listen to what he just said. He wouldn’t accept tax cuts on 98 percent of the people in America because of his ideology.”

The drama played out much the same way when the stimulus package was brought up. Meek defended the bill. “I think it’s very important to know that the stimulus was set to be the floor, not necessarily the silver bullet to job recovery. And I think it’s done quite a bit in the state of Florida,” he said.

Rubio told the audience that only the private sector can create jobs. “I wish politicians could create jobs, because it’s easier to pass a bill than it is to start a business,” he said.

And Crist tried to have it both ways. “We need to rein in government spending. We’ve done it here in Florida,” he said. “But I also am practical enough to appreciate that we’re in a global economic meltdown. You know, people needed help.”

Meek cast himself as the defender of the middle class, and threw out a football reference of his own. “I just want to clarify I’m the only defensive player here at this table,” Meek said. “And I used to be an outside linebacker, and I used to sack quarterbacks and fold knees things of that nature.”

As in previous debates, Meek and Rubio ganged up by labeling Crist as an opportunist. After Rubio hit Crist for following the polls and leaving the Republican party, Crist responded, “That is so untrue and so unfair for you to interpret what’s in my heart.”

For his part, Crist continued his attempt to paint Rubio as an extreme tea-party candidate. “He wants to overturn — listen to me, women watching — overturn Roe versus Wade. He does not support stem cell research,” he said.

It might be a tough pitch so late in the game, especially considering the mainstream support Rubio has received.

“Here’s the reality. I have now received the endorsement of six separate major newspapers in Florida, not exactly the place conservatives go to hang out, at editorial boards,” Rubio said. “And the reason why they are supporting me is because I’m the only candidate in this race that’s proposing serious answers to the serious issues that face America.”

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