Heated Florida U.S. Senate race on full display during Sunday’s CNN debate

Amanda Carey Contributor
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Two things were clear in the Florida U.S. Senate debate Sunday morning. First, the Democratic and independent candidates wanted to gang up on Republican Marco Rubio, who has led the race for the majority of the campaign. And second, Rubio and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek wanted to label independent Florida Gov. Charlie Crist as a flip-flopper who changes his views to match the political tides.

Accusations during the hour-long debate on CNN’s “State of the Union” clearly overwhelmed any discussion of the issues, which ranged from tax policy to immigration, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with Crist at one point even exclaiming to Rubio, “Welcome to the NFL!”

Meek and Crist were relentless in their attacks on Rubio, whose campaign has held the momentum from early on in the race, and who has received endorsements from star conservatives like Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Meek, who has consistently trailed behind the other candidates, targeted Rubio for wanting to give tax cuts to the wealthy, saying that policy would “put an unfair burden on the middle class.”

“I’m here representing the middle class,” said Meek. “The middle class has carried the recession on their back like no one else.”

Crist, oddly enough, went after Rubio for being a symbol of what is wrong with Washington today: “rigid” idealism getting in the way of pragmatic solutions.

“You’re seeing it right here, right now at this table,” said Crist. “That is why I’m running as an independent.”

But though Crist defended his run as an independent, both Rubio and Meek harshly criticized the governor’s track record.

“We all know why the governor is running as an independent,” said Meek at one point. “Because he couldn’t beat Marco Rubio [in the Republican primary].”

Later, Meek added, “The reason why the governor’s argument doesn’t really penetrate with voters is because he’s been all over the board.”

Crist was given plenty of opportunity to defend his decision to leave the Republican primary and run as an independent, although his reasoning seemed more than inadequate next to Rubio and Meek’s attacks.

Crist, who won the 2006 Florida governor’s race, was once viewed as a shoe-in for the Senate seat vacated by former Republican Sen. Mel Martinez. But early on in the Republican primary, Crist found himself trailing Rubio by more than 20 points in the polls.

“I gotta be honest with myself. The far-right wing of the Republican Party has gone too far to the right,” said Crist, who went on to call Rubio’s views “extreme” and label himself as being a “fiscal conservative but social moderate.”

“When the party [GOP] has those kinds of views and represents that kind of intolerance…I couldn’t live with that,” said Crist. “You have to have an independent mind to be a good senator.”
But when the candidates were not defending their records or their economic positions, the personal jabs flew.

For example, when Crist brought up Rubio’s alleged charging of personal expenses on a GOP credit card – an issue that threatened to derail the Republican’s campaign earlier this year – Rubio responded by blasting the governor for distracting voters with nonissues.

“That’s been a trend in this campaign. Anytime we get into the issues the governor wants to distract with accusations,” said Rubio, who added that Crist’s charges were “one litany of falsehoods after the other.”

Crist, normally an exceptionally collected candidate, made an emotional attack to Rubio, saying, “It’s so untrue and so unfair for you to judge what’s in my heart.”

Meek, who was clearly the outsider of the debate, said after Crist interrupted one of his answers, “Governor, if you allow me to give straight answers on positions I’ve had for umpteen years…thank you very much.”

With just a little over a week left before the election, Rubio is the clear frontrunner. The latest Rasmussen poll has him leading the race with 43 percent of the vote, with Crist trailing by more than ten points at 32 percent. Meek registers with only 20 percent of the vote.