Crist Hammers Rubio in First Debate

Posted March 28, 2010 at 10:28am

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, trailing by wide margins in most polls, wasted little time going on the attack against former state Speaker Marco Rubio in the first debate of the hotly contested Republican Senate primary.

During the debate, which aired on “Fox News Sunday,” Crist hammered Rubio for his use of party funds for personal purchases during his time in the state Legislature. Crist has latched on to recent news reports about those purchases to help salvage his sinking poll numbers and turn around a campaign that he began as the overwhelming frontrunner.

Crist sought to use the issue to paint Rubio as a political opportunist who is running for the Senate for all the wrong reasons.

“I view public service as a calling … the Speaker used public service as a way to enhance his personal enrichment and that’s wrong,” Crist said.

Rubio spent his time during Sunday’s debate — where issues ranged from taxes to immigration to social security — attacking Crist’s vulnerable right flank.

Rubio said Crist’s conservative credentials were irreparably tarnished the day he offered his support for President Barack Obama’s stimulus plan in early 2009, a campaign theme that he has hammered ever since launching his bid.

“Who do you trust to stand up to Barack Obama and offer a clear alternative?” Rubio asked. “We can’t trust you, Governor.”

Crist continued to defend the stimulus as the right thing for Florida because the economy “was literally falling off a cliff.”

He acknowledged that had he been in the Senate at the time, he would have joined the handful of Republicans who backed the president on the stimulus plan, giving more ammunition to conservative activists who already loathe Crist and see him as nothing more than a “Republican in name only.”

“I put people above politics,” Crist said.

When asked why a plan that has created or saved an estimated 87,000 jobs for Florida since last year was such a bad thing, Rubio stuck to his conservative guns saying the stimulus will cause more harm than good by saddling America with a crushing debt for years to come.

“If it’s bad for America it’s bad for the state,” Rubio said.

One issue that host and moderator Chris Wallace repeatedly sought to clarify Sunday was speculation about whether Crist might drop out of the Republican primary and run as an Independent.

Many race watchers believe that Crist, who just a year ago was the overwhelming favorite in the primary, has fallen so far behind Rubio that he won’t be able to battle his way back before the August primary. Some polling has also shown that Crist would perform better in a general election as an Independent rather than being judged against Rubio by Republican voters.

Crist insisted, “I’m running as a Republican.”

When asked if he’ll back the winner of the GOP primary in the general election Crist said, “Of course I will.”