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."
The policy differences between the three candidates were obvious, and that is partly a function of the political calculus in the Sunshine State's unorthodox race. Rubio can win merely by turning out his Republican base and a fraction of conservative-minded independents. Similarly, Meek needs only the Democratic base and left-leaning independents. So although Crist must appeal to a coalition of moderates, neither Rubio nor Meek is reaching too far toward the political middle.
This became clear in a discussion of Obama's economic policies. Rubio called the stimulus bill a "massive failure," noting that Meek voted for it and Crist supported it.
At one point, Rubio interrupted Meek to say: "You think government creates jobs."
"No, I don't," Meek said.
"You do," Rubio said.
"I think tax cuts for small businesses create jobs and incentives for local communities to move forward," Meek said.
Rubio later added: "I know that the jobs aren't created by politicians; they're created by everyday people that start a business or expand an existing business. The job of government is to make it easier to do that, not harder, and Washington is making it harder."
Crist seized on the exchange to cast himself as the adult in a proverbial sandbox: "What you've just witnessed is the problem and the reason I'm running as an independent. These two guys are going at each other because one's the Republican right, one's the Democratic left. What's true is there are good things that both parties can present to the future of the country."
On health care, Meek defended the Democratic-led overhaul, while Rubio said he would repeal it. Crist said he wants to keep some parts of the new law, such as the provision allowing people age 25 and younger to stay on their parents' insurance plans, and change others.
Meek, battling Crist for support from Democratic voters, took every opportunity to attack the governor for changing his positions.
"Charlie Crist stands on a wet paper box," Meek said. "You don't know where he is."
Rubio took similar shots. Crist was a Republican, but when it became clear in April he would lose in a primary to Rubio, the governor fled the party.
"I think it's always funny to listen to the governor attack me for the positions he himself held just six months ago, when he was trying to be the biggest conservative in the world and win the Republican primary," Rubio said.
Just seconds before Stephanopoulos ended the debate, Meek had one last point to make.
"It's really mind-boggling, it's beyond an explanation, for the governor to stand here and do more than the Potomac two-step," Meek said. "He was the Governor Wallace when it came down to gay adoptions in this state."
For all of Florida's children in foster care awaiting adoption, Meek said, Crist is akin to Alabama's late governor George Wallace. To protest desegregation in 1963, Wallace stood at the door of a University of Alabama auditorium to try to block black students from entering.
Meek said of Crist: "He stood in the schoolhouse door on this issue."
It was such an unexpected accusation that Stephanopoulos turned to Crist and said: "He just called you Governor Wallace. I want you to take 15 seconds to respond."
"Well," he replied, "my name's Governor Crist."