Sunday’s highly anticipated Florida Senate primary debate found the two Republican candidates in attack mode: Former state House Speaker Marco Rubio attacked the Obama Administration’s big-government agenda, while Gov. Charlie Crist attacked Rubio.
The candidates, featured on Fox News Sunday, laid out themes that are likely to dominate the primary campaign. Crist, trailing by double digits in all the polls, attempted to make Rubio the issue, accusing him of using public service for profit and questioning purchases made through his political action committee.
"I view public service as a calling, something you do to try to help other people, to improve their lives," said Crist. "Speaker Rubio views public service as a way to enhance his personal enrichment, and that’s just wrong."
Rubio deflected the charges, calling them "outrageous," and tried to keep the focus on the Obama Administration’s efforts to expand federal control of the economy.
"People from all over America, all over Florida, are looking at this administration chip away at all the things that have made America great and unique throughout our history," said Rubio.
The governor, who has watched his once-commanding lead disappear in the last six months, also appeared to say that he would continue to run as a Republican, not as an independent. There has been speculation that Crist would abandon his party affiliation in order to appeal to independent voters in November, rather than try to win over the more conservative party faithful in the primary race.
Asked repeatedly by moderator Chris Wallace whether he would pledge to run in the GOP primary and not as an independent, Crist said, "I’m running as a Republican."
Crist was determined to stay on message by keeping the debate’s focus on allegations that Rubio misspent political funds. Crist accused Rubio of using money from a $600,000 "slush fund" to pay for haircuts, minivan repairs, and keeping family members on the payroll. Rubio insisted that the money has been accounted for.
Crist also blasted Rubio for "double-dipping" by billing both the state and the Florida Republican Party pay for business-related flights. Rubio admitted he made an accounting error and has reimbursed the state party for those flights.
While Crist hammered Rubio on details, Rubio kept moving the discussion back to the big picture. After Crist said the election was about trust, Rubio agreed, saying, "Who do you trust to go to Washington to stand up to Barack Obama and offer a clear alternative?"
Rubio repeatedly attempted to tie Crist to the Obama Administration, starting with the governor’s support for the administration’s stimulus package. Rubio called the stimulus "a failure" and said that it undercut Republican alternatives such as tax reductions.
He noted that former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush opposed the stimulus package. Florida now has the largest unemployment rate in its history at 12.2 percent.
While Crist stressed his antipathy to new taxes and big government, Rubio clearly emerged as the more conservative of the two candidates. At one point, Crist said the senator he admired most was Arizona’s John McCain, viewed as a moderate, while Rubio singled out conservative standard-bearer Jim DeMint of South Carolina.
Unable to run to the right of Rubio, Crist painted himself as a pragmatist and a problem-solver. The stimulus, he said, brought $8.2 billion to Florida and created or saved 87,000 jobs.
"As a governor, you’ve got to make the tough decision. I made the tough decision to utilize these funds to help the people of Florida," said Crist. "If we’d taken the Speaker’s approach, we would have had 87,000 more people unemployed on top of the 12.2% that would have been unemployed in Florida today."
He chided Rubio for his idealism, saying, "You can’t just be off on some limb rattling the cage and saying you’re going to do great things and stand on principles or politics above the people of the state you’re supposed to serve."
Rubio countered with, "If it’s bad for America, it can’t possibly be good for your state."
Both candidates supported the repeal of the federal healthcare bill and a secure-the-borders-first approach to illegal immigration, although Rubio noted that Crist had backed McCain’s 2007 legislation that was seen as pro-amnesty.
Rubio also said he would stress programs such as e-verify to make it tougher for illegal immigrants to find jobs.
"That’s where the governor and I disagree. If we grant amnesty, as the governor proposes that we do . . . you’ll destroy any chance we’ll ever have of having a legal immigration system that works here in America."
Both candidates insisted they were against new taxes, although Crist acknowledged he had raised what he called "user fees" on cigarettes and motor-vehicle registration. And both agreed that the Aug. 24 primary election was about trust, although not in the same way.
Crist asked if voters could trust Rubio, who earned a salary as a "lawyer/lobbyist" while serving in the state House.
" We have a very fundamental different view about public service. I think it is to serve the public. That’s why I took the stimulus money, because I put people above politics," said Crist.
Rubio, meanwhile, asked whether voters could trust Crist to stand up for conservative principles if elected to the Senate.
"Who do you trust to stand up to Barack Obama and to offer a clear alternative?" said Rubio. "I’m running for U.S. Senate because if I get there I would stand up to Barack Obama. We can’t trust you, governor, to stand up to Barack Obama"
Cartoon courtesy of Brett Noel