Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio hammered each other Sunday in their first face-to-face debate of the state’s contentious Republican Senate primary.
"There is a clear, stark distinction between Speaker Rubio and myself," Crist said. "I think public service is something you do to help other people. … Speaker Rubio has used public service to enhance his own personal enrichment, and that's wrong."
Crist was referring to widely circulated news reports that Rubio used party funds for personal expenditures while he was a member of the Florida Legislature.
"All it helped was Rubio Incorporated," Crist said during the debate, which aired on “Fox News Sunday.” "Family members got hired – he got a $130 haircut or whatever it was."
Rubio, who leads Crist by wide margins in most polls, responded: "Those allegations are false – those allegations have been proven false," he said, while admitting that he could've “done a better job of reporting it."
Crist tried to frame the race as an issue of trust, and at one point he questioned why Rubio has not publicly released his income tax returns.
"Is it because you're doctoring the books?" Crist asked.
But Rubio hit back at Crist just as hard, questioning the governor's conservative credentials. Rubio has made Crist's support of President Barack Obama's $787 billion stimulus plan a centerpiece of his campaign attacks, and he continued that theme on Sunday.
"All he wants to talk about is tearing me down, personal attacks, etc.," he said. "He talks about making sense. How does spending $787 billion of money we don't have, money we're borrowing from Chinese and Japanese investors, money that my children and their generation are going to have to work their whole life to pay the interest and principle on — how does that in any way make sense for Florida or for our country?"
"Governor, you just don't get it," Rubio said. "... Everyone knows you won't stand up to the Obama agenda because just a year ago you were campaigning for it. … Who do you trust to stand up to Barack Obama and offer a clear alternative? We can't trust you, Governor."
Rubio said Obama's stimulus plan will strangle Florida with staggering debt for decades, and pointed out that the state's unemployment rate is 12.2 percent.
"If it's bad for America, it's bad for the state," he said.
Rubio continued to hammer away at Crist, who has been described by some opponents as a “Republican in name only,” by insisting that he had an opportunity to continue the legacy of his predecessor Jeb Bush – but failed.
"In 2006 I voted for you when you said you would be a good Jeb Bush
Republican," he said. "Your record is very different."
In other issues:
- Crist insisted he would not drop out of the GOP race and run as an independent. "I'm running as a Republican,” he said.
- Rubio proposed raising the retirement age for Social Security as a way to trim America's national debt, as well as changing how benefit levels are adjusted annually. "I think all of that has to be on the table," he said.
- Crist called for eliminating waste and fraud in the Social Security system.
- Both candidates called for the repeal of Obama's healthcare reform law.
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