A Lively First Debate For Florida's 3 Senate Hopefuls

Florida U.S. Senate candidates Marco Rubio, Charlie Christ and Kendrick Meek.

Florida U.S. Senate candidates Marco Rubio (from left), Charlie Crist and Kendrick Meek get ready to start their debate of WFTV in Orlando, Fla. Joe Burbank, Pool/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Burbank, Pool/AP

Among the Senate races this midterm election season, Florida has been fascinating — in part because it's a three-way contest.

Polls show Republican Marco Rubio as the front-runner, with Democrat Kendrick Meek trailing. In the middle, both in the polls and in politics, is Gov. Charlie Crist.

The three candidates met for a debate Wednesday night in Orlando.

A year ago, few would have predicted a three-way Senate race — probably not even Crist, the independent candidate. At that time, Crist was a Republican, a sitting governor and the front-runner for his party's Senate nomination.

But a lot happened between then and now: Former Florida House speaker Rubio's campaign caught fire with Republican activists and the Tea Party, and Crist dropped out of the Republican primary and the Republican Party.

During Wednesday's debate, Crist continued to try to walk a narrow path — that of a moderate with no party affiliation.

Florida U.S. Senate candidates Marco Rubio, Charlie Christ and Kendrick Meek. i i

Florida U.S. Senate candidates Marco Rubio (from left), Charlie Crist and Kendrick Meek share a laugh before their debate Wednesday. Joe Burbank, Pool/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Burbank, Pool/AP
Florida U.S. Senate candidates Marco Rubio, Charlie Christ and Kendrick Meek.

Florida U.S. Senate candidates Marco Rubio (from left), Charlie Crist and Kendrick Meek share a laugh before their debate Wednesday.

Joe Burbank, Pool/AP

"It's abundantly clear to me that there's an extreme right faction in the Republican party," Crist said. "I'm the only candidate who can both win in November and crash that Tea Party in Washington."

To do that, though, Crist has to do well among Democrats, Republicans and independents. This week, Crist launched a new ad attacking Rubio for his proposal to raise the Social Security retirement age, forcing people to "work longer, get by on less."

Rubio fired back on Wednesday, saying Crist was twisting the facts. Rubio said his proposal to raise the retirement age to 70 wouldn't affect anyone currently over 55.

"One of those seniors, Gov. Crist, that's out there, is my mother," Rubio began. "She's 80 years old this month. She depends on Social Security. It is her primary source of income. And for you to suggest that I would somehow advocate ideas that would harm her is outrageous, and a blatant untruth."

Rubio has been on the campaign trail for a year-and-a-half — steadily honing his anti-Washington message.

Meek, the Democrat from South Florida, also has worked hard on the stump. He has lined up the support of most of the state's labor unions and has brought in top Democrats like Joe Biden, Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Up until now, his campaign mostly focused its fire on Crist, reminding voters that there's only one real Democrat in the race. But during the debate, Meek took aim at Rubio.

"I think you want to be elected to move a national ideology for the conservative right," Meek charged. "I'm not on board that train. I'm on board the train of tying to resolve the issues here in Florida."

On most issues, it's clear where Meek and Rubio stand. On health care, Meek is for the Obama plan; Rubio wants to repeal it. On stimulus, Meek is for it, Rubio against it — even the billions of federal dollars that saved jobs in Florida.

Crist, meanwhile, tries to split it down the middle. That leads to charges that he flip-flops — or, as Meek put it, Crist "stands on a wet paper box. You don't know where he is."

But in the lively debate, moderated by ABC's George Stephanopoulos, Crist worked to portray himself as the calm, clear voice.

"These two guys [Rubio and Meeks] are going at each other because one's the Republican right, one's the Democratic left," Crist said. "What's true is there are good things both parties can present to the future of our country."

On the health care overhaul, Crist has taken a particularly twisted path, saying at various times that he would have voted both for and against it. Asked to clarify Wednesday night, he said he's against it and thinks it needs to be fixed. There are parts of the health care law that are good, he said, and parts that need to be changed.

Rubio's position is a bit less nuanced.

"This health care bill is a disaster," Rubio charged. "Just in the last two weeks, we've learned the following things: These child-only policies are being dropped. We've learned that low-wage, part-time workers are now going to lose their coverage. We've learned that seniors are starting to get dropped out of Medicare Advantage. We've learned the premiums are going to go up. In fact, this bill has broken every promise that was made when Kendrick Meek and Charlie Crist supported it."

Meek accused both Rubio and Crist of playing political games with an issue that affects many Floridians deeply. With some passion, he said that while they're talking about rolling back parts of the plan, 3,500 Floridians lose health care each week.

"When you have a family member in the hospital, looking up at popcorn ceiling and they're sick, and the insurance company cut their coverage, then you need a United States senator that's going to stand in the gap," Meek said.

The three men will meet in at least two more debates — the next one in two weeks.

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