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Rubio, Crist Clash in Sunday’s Fox News Debate

phpThumb_generated_thumbnailIn a 40 minute debate moderated by Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, Republican U.S. Senate candidates Gov. Charlie Crist and former House Speaker Marco Rubio sparred over their stances on the federal economic stimulus package, health care, social security, immigration and their records in state government.

Squaring off face-to-face for the first time in their increasingly contentious race for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination, Crist and Rubio echoed the tone of sharply negative television ads their campaigns began airing last week, which Wallace showed at the top of the debate.

“It’s important for the voters in Florida to understand there’s a clear, stark distinction between Speaker Rubio and I and our approach to public service,” Crist said, echoing his campaign’s "We Thought He Was Different" ad, which casts Rubio as not living up to his ideological positioning in the race.

“I view public service as something you do to help other people out,” Crist said. “Unfortunately, recent news accounts have come out in Florida that show Speaker Rubio views public service as way to enhance his personal wealth.”

As he did in his own “Better” commercial, which features a narrator asking "can't Florida do better" than Crist and responds with Obama's 2008 campaign slogan "Yes We Can," Rubio responded Sunday by painting Crist as overly negative and too friendly with President Barack Obama.

“Governor, you just don’t get it,” Rubio said to Crist. “This campaign is not about you and not about me. It’s about the people watching this program who are watching their country being taken in the wrong direction. You’re right, there is a distinction. People are looking for someone that would stand up to this administration and everyone knows you won’t because just last year you were campaigning for it.”

Both Crist and Rubio sought to turn each other’s time in Tallahassee into a disadvantage, with Rubio saying Crist had failed to live up to his predecessor, former Gov. Jeb Bush, who is thought to be a mentor to the former speaker.

“I voted for you in 2006 because you said you were going to be a Jeb Bush Republican,” Rubio said. “Your record has been something very different. You tried to impose a cap and trade system in Florida, you appointed liberals to the Supreme Court.”

In response, Crist hammered Rubio on his tenure as speaker of the House for a plan to replace property taxes with increases in the state sales tax Crist said would have been the largest tax increase in Florida history. Crist also accused Rubio of inaction on the issue of illegal immigration during his time leading the Florida House.

Fox host Wallace pushed back on Crist’s tax cut claims, saying that the state budget Crist signed into law included a host of fee increases that could easily be considered taxes, including about $1 billion in cigarette taxes and another billion in driving fees. But Crist drew a distinction between those, which he called “user fees,” and Rubio’s tax plan, which he said would have affected everyone in the state.

“If you don’t drive, you don’t pay,” Crist said.

On the federal economic stimulus, which Crist supported, drawing criticism from Rubio, the governor said he was putting the needs of the people of Florida before politics.

Asked by Wallace if he would have voted for the stimulus if he was in the U.S. Senate last year, Crist said “that’s pretty clear.”

“You have to remember what was happening at the time,” he said. “The economy was falling off a cliff.”

Rubio pounced, saying that was the choice in the election.

“Do you want the next Republican senator from Florida to be someone who would have stood up to Barack Obama and voted against the stimulus package?” he asked. “That would be me. Do you want someone who would have voted with the Democrats? That would be the governor.”

The debate took place against a backdrop of another recent poll showing Rubio to be leading the race 48-37 percent, prompting Wallace to ask Crist if he would rule out filing to run as an independent by the April 30 deadline to make the switch.

Crist held firm, saying “I’m running as a Republican” and saying he would support whoever won the August 24 primary.

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