Politics & Policy

Sixth Florida Senate Debate Serves up a Satisfying Finale

For conservatives, Florida’s final U.S. Senate debate was no doubt deeply satisfying.

After cheering Marco Rubio’s rising star, early supporters were forced to watch in anguish as Charlie Crist defected from the GOP in April and began leading polls as an independent. Tuesday’s debate — the last of six face-to-face encounters — was a fitting finale to Rubio’s eventual resurgence.

Gone, for the most part, were the personal attacks of corruption that have plagued other meetings. No mention was made of Dennis Stackhouse, the indicted developer with ties to Kendrick Meek, or of the Republican Party financial scandals that have dogged Crist and Rubio. Instead, egged on by NBC’s David Gregory, the candidates engaged in pointed policy discussion, where Rubio had wanted to play all along.

Two exchanges stand out as almost a microcosm of the race. On Social Security, Crist and Meek steadfastly refused to commit to any solid reform, even when pushed hard by Gregory. “Why do you tell seniors that it’s just somehow going to be OK? It’s not going to be OK,” he said at one point in exasperation.

In contrast, Rubio grabbed politics’ third rail with both hands, and he came out looking like a policy pragmatist.

As always, he stated support for Social Security, saying, “the merits of the program don’t need to be explained to me, because I see it every month. My mom — who told me she would kill me the next time I said her age on the air, but I’m going to do it one more time — turns 80 on November second. And Social Security is her primary source of income.”

But younger workers, he said, those below the age 55, will have to accept some changes, despite the protestations of Meek and Crist that the program is solvent for another 30 years. “When you talk about the year 2037 or 2041, that’s when it explodes,” Rubio said. “But every year that goes by, solving it gets harder, not easier.”

Asked specifically about how an increase in the retirement age, which Rubio has advocated, could be implemented, he said that any proposal would need to be studied and found actuarially sound, but offered one idea: “You could say — well, what about adding one month every two years for the next 100 years?” (Watch the full Social Security exchange on the website of NBC-affiliate WESH.)

If voters and political prognosticators want to explain Rubio’s 12-point lead, they should look no further. His willingness to confront the tough issues in a direct way has caught the attention of voters in the state — even those who don’t agree with him on a host of other issues.

“At this critical juncture in the nation’s economy, Mr. Rubio offers a welcome dose of fiscal restraint. He has exhibited common sense on Social Security, where he proposes raising the retirement age as a way of keeping the program solvent. Neither Mr. Crist nor Mr. Meek has dared to make take such a clear stand,” the Miami Herald wrote in endorsing Rubio.

Gregory also pushed Crist hard on shifting stances since leaving the GOP. Crist has attacked the Republican Party for its positions on social issues such as stem cell research, opposition to gay adoption and desire to overturn Roe v. Wade — stances, Gregory said, that were abundantly clear in the platform when Crist was a proud party member.

“I call it the convergence of life experience and wisdom. And when you learn through the time of life more tolerance and become less judgmental, I think that’s a good place to be,” Crist said to explain his changes of heart, adding later: “There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s called being honest. They are rigid — they have to stay where they are because the party bosses tell them to. I am liberated and I am free.” Crist brought up tea-party candidates such as Christine O’Donnell, Rand Paul and Sharron Angle as evidence that the party had shifted rightward.

Gregory, though, seemed not to buy this answer, and Meek didn’t either. “When I hear flip-flops in the hallway, I think it’s the governor walking down the hall,” Meek said.

Sitting with a large lead one week before the Nov. 2 election, Rubio stayed, to some extent, out of the fray, urging that they stay focused on the issues. And for the most, part, they did. But watching Crist squirm while being grilled about political expediency must have been vindicating.

Rubio warned reporters in the conference call this morning, though, that conservatives shouldn’t celebrate too soon.

“My only concern is that in some conservative circles there are people popping champagne, when we haven’t won anything yet,” Rubio said. “Really, the only thing that happened is that there’s been a bunch of public polls that show we have a good lead.”

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