Florida Senate Debate: They Came to Play

Wow they came to play - teeing off on each other from the start.

Tune into "GMA" at 7am tomorrow for more on the Florida Senate debate – but here is the first analysis from my colleague Amy Walter...

ABC News’ Amy Walter analyzes the debate:

The ABC News’ “Vote 2010” midterm debate series kicked-off tonight in Orlando, Florida with a feisty and aggressive debate between the three candidates running for Senate in Florida. While the debate produced fireworks and some great one-liners, in the end, neither Gov. Charlie Crist (I) nor Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) was able to knock frontrunner Marco Rubio (R) off his game.

Rubio’s message – which he diligently stuck to throughout the one-hour debate was pretty simple: I’m the anti-Washington, DC candidate. Calling the health care bill and the stimulus “disaster[s]”, Rubio said, “if you like Obama care, if you like the stimulus” then vote for Crist or Meek. Rubio also fought back charges by Crist that he was supportive of privatizing Social Security, saying that it was “off the table.”

Meek, who represents a heavily Democratic district in South Florida, embraced his support of the Obama agenda, including his votes for the stimulus and health care reform. He also worked to lump Crist and Rubio together as conservative Republicans, saying that both support “trickle-down economics” and would take the country back to Bush-era politics. In response to Crist’s explanation for his change of position on gay adoption, Meek called Crist the “Governor Wallace of gay adoption” arguing that he stood in the way of this for years. The most recent polls show Meek essentially splitting the Democratic vote with Crist. The best way for him to consolidate that base is to call Crist out as a Republican.

Crist, meanwhile, tried to thread the needle. Calling himself a “live and let live kind of guy,” Crist labeled himself a “fiscal conservative and a social moderate,” while tagging Rubio as “far right” and Meek as “far left.” Even so, he saved his strongest attacks for Rubio, calling him out as captive of the Tea Party. “You haven’t been drinking Kool-Aid,” said Crist, “you’ve been drinking too much tea.” He also tried to label the former Speaker of the Florida House as a serial earmarker. “I understand what it means to veto earmarks,” said Crist, “I had to do it to Rubio all the time.” With the most recent polling showing Rubio ahead among Republicans and independents, Crist needs to find a way to appeal to both, without alienating either – or losing support among Democrats.

In the end, however, Crist never got in a clean punch and Rubio was able to consistently turn the debate back to a choice between someone who’ll “stand up to” what’s happening in Washington, DC versus those who support what’s happening there.

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