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With election day just weeks away, we're looking at some of the key races -races that will determine which party controls Congress next year. One of the more intriguing contests is the Senate race in Florida. It features three strong candidates, including a very familiar name there, who's running now as an independent.
Last night in Orlando they all met in a debate. NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN: A year ago, few would have predicted a three-way Senate race probably not even the independent candidate, Charlie Crist. At that time, Crist was a Republican, a sitting governor, and the frontrunner for his partys Senate nomination.
But a lot happened between then and now. Former State House Speaker Marco Rubios campaign caught fire with Republican activists and the Tea Party. Crist dropped out of the Republican primary and the Republican Party. In last nights debate, he continued to try to walk a narrow path - that of a moderate with no party affiliation.�
Governor CHARLIE CRIST (Independent, Florida): Its abundantly clear to me that theres an extreme right faction in the Republican Party. And I think that Im the only candidate who can both win in November and crash that Tea Party in Washington.
ALLEN: 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, quote, work longer, get by on less."
Rubio fired back last night, saying Crist was twisting the facts. Rubio said his proposal to raise the retirement age to 70 wouldnt affect anyone currently over 55.
Mr. MARCO RUBIO (Republican Senate Candidate, Florida): You know, one of those seniors, Governor Crist, thats out there is my mother. Shes 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.
ALLEN: Marco Rubio has been on the campaign trail now for a year and a half, steadily honing his anti-Washington message.�
The Democratic candidate, Congressman Kendrick Meek, an African-American from South Florida, has also worked hard on the stump. Hes lined up the support of most of the states labor unions and has brought in top Democrats, like Joe Biden, Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
Up to now, his campaign mostly focused its fire on Crist, reminding voters theres only one real Democrat in the race. But in last nights debate, Meek took aim at Rubio.
Representative KENDRICK MEEK (Democrat, Florida): I think that you want to be elected to move a national ideology for the conservative right. Im not on board, on board that train. Im on board the train of tying to resolve the issues here in Florida.
ALLEN: With Meek and Rubio, on most issues its clear where they stand. On healthcare, 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 last night, Crist stands on a wet paper box. You dont know where he is.
But in the lively debate, moderated by ABCs George Stephanopoulos, Crist worked to portray himself as the calm, clear voice.
(Soundbite of overlapping voices)
Mr. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (ABC News): Ive got to let Governor Crist, I've got to let Governor Crist get a rebuttal on the stimulus and then we have to move on.
Gov. CRIST: Thank you very much. What youve just witnessed is the problem and the reason Im running as an independent. These two guys are going at each other because ones the Republican right, ones the Democratic left. Whats true is there are good things that both parties can present to the future of our country.
ALLEN: On healthcare, Crist has taken a particularly twisted path - saying at various times that he would have voted both for and against it. Asked to clarify last night, he said hes 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.
Needless to say, Rubios position is a bit less nuanced.
Mr. RUBIO: I think this health care bills a disaster. Just in the last two weeks, weve learned the following things. These child-only policies are being dropped. Weve learned that low-wage part-time workers are now going to lose their coverage. Weve learned that seniors are starting to get dropped out of Medicare Advantage. Weve 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.
ALLEN: 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 were talking about rolling back parts of the plan, 3,500 Floridians lose healthcare each week.
Rep. MEEK: When you have a family member in the hospital, looking up at a popcorn ceiling, and theyre sick, and the insurance company cut their coverage, then you need a United States senator thats going to stand in the gap.
ALLEN: The three men will meet in at least two more debates - the next one in two weeks.
Greg Allen, NPR news, Miami.�