Gloves Come Off in U.S. Senate Debate
Around the State
Every poll shows Rubio leading partyless Crist by double digits, with Democratic nominee Meek trailing both.
Sponsored by the Florida Press Association and Leadership Florida, the debate was moderated by Antonio Mora of WFOR. The candidates took questions from William March of the Tampa Tribune, Myriam Marquez of the Miami Herald and Michael Williams of WFOR.
National fiscal issues dominated the start of the debate. The three candidates sparred over the federal stimulus that President Barack Obama supported. Meek and Crist backed the stimulus, Rubio criticized it.
The debate turned to other federal fiscal issues, including taxes and Social Security.
Asked if the federal government should raise taxes or cut benefits, the governor said that was a false choice.
“Now is the time to cut taxes,” insisted Crist, who vowed to keep Social Security intact. Crist jabbed at Rubio, arguing that the Republican wanted to “tinker” with the program.
Meek praised the new health-care law backed by Obama, adding that Crist and Rubio wanted to repeal it. He insisted that the law would help cut the deficit in the long run.
“Expanding the middle class in Florida will help the Social Security trust fund,” said Meek. “If somebody wants to cut Social Security, they will have to go through me.”
Rubio said the governor is trying to scare seniors by telling them that he wants to cut Social Security. He noted that his own mother depends on it and his proposed reforms would not impact current beneficiaries. Noting that Social Security would run out by 2037, Rubio said that younger Americans need different options to keep the program solvent. The Republican took aim at the budget backed by the Obama administration and congressional Democrats, insisting it will double the national debt in a short period.
Crist attempted to claim the middle ground, blasting Rubio and the Republicans as “hard right,” while taking aim at Obama and the Democrats for passing the health-care law.
Rubio attacked the health-care law, arguing that it is taking away from Medicaid and it is increasing costs. The Republican called for health-care reform by implementing free-market solutions, including allowing Americans to purchase insurance from companies out-of-state.
“Obamacare was off the charts, it’s wrong,” insisted Crist, who pointed to his Cover Florida plan -- even though only 6,200 Floridians signed up for it. The governor said that his program lowered costs and increased coverage.
Meek defended the health-care law, arguing that 3,500 Floridians lose their coverage each week and that the special interests are raising the prices. “Right now insurance companies are playing chicken with Floridians and Americans,” he insisted.
Trying to prevent Democrats from backing the governor, Meek slammed Crist for opposing the health-care law and for supporting oil drilling in Florida waters. In an acrimonious exchange, Crist replied that he does not support drilling -- leading Meek to remind voters that Crist cheered Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s call to "drill, baby, drill."
Asked about inconsistencies, including leaving the Republican Party after Rubio caught him in the polls, Crist insisted he remains consistent. “I am a fiscal conservative and a social moderate,” said Crist, who then attacked Rubio for wanting to overturn Roe vs. Wade and looking to change Social Security.
Asked about the Obama administration’s unpopularity in Florida, Meek defended his positions and said he stood up to the White House when he felt it was needed, such as opposing cuts to NASA. Seeking again to keep Democrats from backing Crist, he attempted to lump the governor and Rubio together on the issues.
Rubio defended his record on immigration, calling immigrants an important part of America’s society and economy. The Republican called for the nation to enforce its laws on immigration.
The candidates were then asked about issues from their background that raised questions on ethics. Asked about his mother’s connection to a controversial developer, Meek said he backs -- and has always backed -- passing more ethics laws. “There’s no improprieties there, as far as I’m concerned,” said Meek.
Asked about expenses he charged on a credit card obtained through the Republican Party of Florida (RPOF), Rubio said that he had paid those charges back and insisted that such questions take away from focus on important issues such as the economy.
Asked about his backing of disgraced former RPOF chairman Jim Greer, Crist said that he is “disappointed” but that “it happens.” Crist went after Rubio on a real-estate issue, saying it is proof of “pay to play.” Rubio called the governor’s charge an “outrageous attack.” Rubio then ripped into the governor, arguing that Crist is calling for reform in Washington while engaging in personal attacks.
The debate then turned to international issues. Rubio called for a stable Afghanistan, arguing it is essential to keep neighboring Pakistan, a nuclear power, secure. He said, unlike his opponents, he opposes a timetable to withdraw from the region.
Crist said he essentially agrees with Rubio, though he took issue with the timetable. “The war on terrorism must continue until we are safe and secure,” said the governor, who praised the leadership of Gen. David Petraeus.
Meek said America needs to work with other nations to continue the war on terror. “We can’t do it alone like we tried to do in Iraq,” said Meek, who expressed sympathy for the families of military personnel.
The final question touched on illegal immigrants. Crist called for better border security and creating a “path to citizenship” for illegal aliens in the nation. Meek said that politics is getting in the way of reform. Rubio called for “modernization” of immigration laws.
The candidates then went into their final statements.
“This election is about the future of our country,” said Rubio. The Republican blasted the Obama administration for putting America on the “wrong road” and saying that the other two candidates back the White House.
“Washington is broken,” insisted Crist, who pointed to his record as governor and said he will be able to work with both parties on behalf of Floridians. He attacked Rubio as an “extreme right” candidate.
Meek noted that former President Bill Clinton is stumping in Florida on his behalf this week and said he is the only candidate who was pro-choice and against oil drilling.
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