Social Security, corruption, immigration and party switching were just a few of the hot topics Wednesday night as Florida's three Senate candidates sat down for their second face-to-face debate.
ABC's George Stephanopoulos moderated the hour-long face-off between Republican Marco Rubio, Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek, and Charlie Crist, the state's Republican governor who became an independent just before Florida's GOP primary.
Stephanopoulos began the questioning with the most recent controversy in the race -- an ad from Crist
that accused Rubio of planning to raise the retirement age and cut Social Security benefits for Florida's 3.1 million seniors.
Rubio, who once said everything should be on the table to shore up Social Security, called the ad "blatantly untrue," as he told Crist his own mother is 80 years old and relies on Social Security as her primary income. "For you to suggest that I would somehow advocate ideas that would harm her is outrageous," he said. "It's not true. It's a lie."
Crist said he stood by the ad. "I understand that he may not like what he said before, but the facts are the facts and facts are stubborn things," he said. "The people in Florida have a right to know what Marco Rubio would do."
In a strange twist, Crist said he would support a plan endorsed by Robert Reich, Bill Clinton's secretary of Labor, to give the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country a path to citizenship but also have them pay taxes into the Social Security system and fill its coffers.
Both Meek and Crist sought to position themselves as the alternative to Rubio, who is leading in recent polls, by launching frequent attacks on the former Florida House speaker, while Rubio and Meek pummeled Crist for switching his position on issues, just as he switched parties to keep himself in the race for governor.
Crist defended his choices as honest and chalked the other men's attacks up to partisan politics as usual, telling Florida voters the debate proved why he, not Rubio or Meek, would be the candidate who could change Washington's ways.
The conversation at one point turned to a report from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington
, which included all three Senate hopefuls on its list of America's most corrupt candidates in 2010.
Crist said that when Rubio was House speaker, he was "clearly wrong" for pushing spending on projects that would benefit Rubio personally, which Rubio dismissed as "false allegations."
"I think it's interesting that the governor says he wants to go to Washington to get rid of the rancor and the ugly talk in politics, and yet he is participating in it fully," Rubio said.
When Meek and Rubio later devolved into bickering over the $800-billion stimulus plan that Meek supported and Rubio called "a complete failure," Crist jumped in to push his new, independent brand again. "This is why I am running as an independent," Crist said. "There are good things both parties can offer for the future of this country. If you want somebody to go to Washington to cut through the fog of this partisanship, I'm your guy."
Stephanopoulos often interrupted to keep the candidates on track and moved the discussion along to hit several policy issues before the hour ended.
On health-care reform, Rubio called the law that passed Congress "a disaster" and promised to repeal it and replace it with a plan that would allow consumers to buy insurance across state lines and let small businesses pool their resources to buy plans together.
Crist said he liked parts of the new law, like the measure allowing adults under 26 to buy insurance through their parents, but said he wanted to revisit the $500-billion cut to Medicare Advantage in the bill. "We have to fix it, but it has to be done right," Crist said.
Meek accused Crist of treating the bill "like a breakfast bar," where he picked only what he liked from it. "I'm not going to take advice from anyone who bailed out of a Republican primary and would not face Marco Rubio," Meek said. "I am the only one here who understands that 100 Floridians lose their insurance every week."
On the Bush tax cuts, Crist called it the wrong time to raise taxes on anybody, while Rubio said the country needs to grow the economy with a combination of "stable and affordable tax cuts" and spending cuts. Meek accused both men of being willing to "give millionaires and billionaires a tax break on the backs of the middle class."
The debate ended with a discussion of two local issues -- the first a plan to build a high-speed rail line linking several Florida cities. Rubio refused to support the plan, saying that the out-of-control national debt made many worthy projects unrealistic.
"Nothing is more important than dealing with this long-term debt issue," Rubio said. "That's a priority over almost anything else our country faces."
Crist endorsed the idea as governor and favored it again Wednesday night. "It''s all about jobs, jobs, jobs," Crist said.
But Meek attacked Crist for failing to provide leadership on the high-speed rail project. "Charlie Crist stands on a wet paper box as it relates to the issues," Meek said. "When it comes to the issues, we don't know where he stands."
The biggest fireworks of the evening came at the end of the debate, when the issue of gay adoption was raised. Crist once supported a Florida ban on gay adoption, but recently praised a judge's decision to overturn the ban. Crist said he supported the ban because it was the law in Florida, but welcomed the change.
"Some people in Washington want to tell people who they should love and who they shouldn't," Crist said. "I'm a live-and-let-live kind of guy . . .I am a fiscal conservative and a social moderate. I really believe in less government and more freedom."
Rubio said Crist's positions had curiously changed along with his party affiliation. "It's always great to listen to the governor attack me for positions he held six months ago when he was trying to be the biggest conservative in the world," Rubio said.
Meek took the chance to agree with Rubio for once and said Crist's new position on the issue was too politically expedient to be genuine. Comparing Crist to Gov. George Wallace, the governor of Alabama who fought to keep public schools segregated, Meek said, "He stood in the schoolhouse door on this issue and now you want to be the biggest cheerleader of gay adoption."
Heading into the debate, the most recent state-wide polls showed
Rubio leading with 39 percent of the vote, Crist with 33 percent and Meek with 17 percent.