Marco Rubio takes fire from Meek, Crist in Florida Senate debate

The 2010 election brought scores of tea party-backed candidates into Washington.
By Philip Rucker
Thursday, October 7, 2010; 8:03 AM

Shortly before Wednesday night's prime-time televised debate between Florida's Senate hopefuls, the Republican enjoying a commanding lead in the three-way race announced that he had raised an impressive $5 million in the just-completed third quarter. So from the moment Marco Rubio arrived at an Orlando television studio to debate his rivals, the tea party favorite got the front-runner treatment.

Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) and Gov. Charlie Crist, running as an independent, held little back in the debate as they chipped away at Rubio's armor, scrambling to knock him off his game and to reshape the trajectory of a contest that has been one of the most riveting this year.

The candidates sat around an intimate wooden table but were combative nonetheless, sometimes to a dizzying degree.

Meek and Crist attacked Rubio as a right-wing extremist. Crist and Rubio attacked Meek as a big-government liberal. Rubio attacked Meek and Crist for supporting President Obama's economic and health care policies. Meek and Rubio attacked Crist for changing his positions over and over again.

Mostly, the fire was aimed at Rubio, who polls suggest has consolidated the Republican base and is winning over some independent voters.

"You want to take us back to Dick Cheney days," Meek charged.

"You haven't been drinking the Kool-Aid, my friend, you've been drinking too much tea - and it's wrong," Crist said of Rubio.

Rubio countered: "I think it's interesting the governor says that he wants to go to Washington and get rid of the rancor and the ugly talk in politics, and yet he's participating fully in it."

The one-hour debate, moderated by ABC's George Stephanopoulos, was the second of six scheduled debates before the Nov. 2 election. It was televised live and uninterrupted on all of Florida's ABC affiliates, offering a big audience and, for Crist and Meek, a big opportunity.

Rubio's objective, meanwhile, was to weather the criticisms, to show he could take a punch and to avoid making any major mistakes. On all counts, he succeeded, remaining smooth and calm.

Crist tried to rise above the partisan fray and present himself as a level-headed, common-sense alternative.

Meek, meanwhile, is running third in the polls, and in an attempt to get out of that hole, he was feisty and pulled no punches. During an exchange on Social Security, an issue of paramount importance to Florida's huge elderly population, Meek said: "If they want to change Social Security, they're going to have to go through me. I'm 6-3, former state trooper, used to be a football player."

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