The Corner

Extra Credit

In Florida, it’s now a face-off between a credit card and the country’s credit.

Marco Rubio, a former state House speaker, hopes to win the GOP Senate primary by knocking the Obama agenda. Rubio’s opponent, Gov. Charlie Crist, is banking on making the race about Rubio’s integrity — namely his credit-card expenses as state party chairman. On Sunday, both strategies were on full display during the duo’s first televised debate, a 40-minute scrum broadcast nationally on Fox News Sunday.

For better or worse, both Crist and Rubio acknowledged this fast-hardening narrative during conversations with National Review Online.

“We wasted a lot of time,” says Rubio. “We need serious policymakers that have serious ideas, but we spent a lot of time addressing other issues. I understand that. When you admit on air that you support amnesty and the stimulus package, and get exposed for having raised taxes, you want to talk about other things. That was the story.”

Crist, of course, sees things differently. He unswervingly believes that Rubio’s character will be the decisive issue as they march toward the August primary. “I enjoyed it,” he says, reflecting on the debate. “It was nice to have a chance to ask some questions. My opponent seems to only develop character when someone catches him double-billing flights.”

But, I ask, aren’t such criticisms just a tad personal? “It’s not personal at all,” Crist says. “It’s the most relevant issue in any campaign — what is your character? We’re running for public office and this relates to the public record. It’s critically important, and an obligation of mine, to highlight my opponent’s lack of candor and transparency.”

Crist’s approach is underscored by the way he frames his answers. When I try to change the subject to the debate’s one-minute to-and-fro about Ronald Reagan, Crist brings it back to Rubio. “Reagan was a straightforward guy, he was honest,” he says. “My opponent obfuscates and misleads. Reagan was a transparent, genuine guy, and Republicans believe in conservative, personal responsibility.”

What’s interesting is that Rubio, despite wanting to move on, seems very aware of how Crist wants to make this about him — and how that effort, left to fester, could hurt him the polls. So, instead of taking the bait and acting defensive, Rubio says he will continue to call out Crist for his “outrageous” claims and answer any question.

“He’ll continue to ask these questions, and I will continue to answer them,” Rubio says. “They’re real, but this was not taxpayer money. I identified personal charges and made payments when they happened. All of this money is accounted for, and it was all used for political purposes. That’s the truth. I should have done a better job of reporting, to avoid these questions three to five years later, but you live and learn. But look, this campaign isn’t about me or him. It’s about the people, and whether we can offer them a real alternative.”

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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