Crist and Rubio Duke It Out on Fox News Sunday
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03/29/10 Lisa Marzilli
WMNF Drive-Time News Monday | Listen to this entire show:

It’s being described as a bellwether, a fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party. However you describe it, it is clearly one of the most closely watched campaigns in the country: the Republican race for Florida’s U.S. Senate nomination between Gov. Charlie Crist and former State House speaker Marco Rubio.

The gloves came off as both candidates sparred for 40 minutes on FOX News Sunday. The face-off marked the first nationally broadcast debate of the 2010 election.

Governor Crist’s first punch came just minutes into his opening remarks, when he said it was important for voters to understand the clear distinction between him and Rubio with regard to how they approach public service. Crist said he sees it as something you do to help other people improve their quality of life, but as for Rubio...

*”Unfortunately, recent news accounts in Florida have come out that indicate in fact that Speaker Rubio views public service as a way to enhance his personal enrichment. And that's just wrong. For example, he set up about about a 600,000 dollar slush fund, which he utilized for ostensibly political purposes. But it's been shown lately it's been used to fix his minivan, get haircuts, employ family members, things of this nature, that are not what a political committee is supposed to do. There are 34,000 dollars in expenses from that 600,000 dollar slush fund that have not been accounted for. We don't know where the money went. We don't know what happened to it. And the speaker won't tell us.*

Rubio shot back quickly.

The facts are that this is not taxpayer money. It was raised for the purposes of political advancement, for advancing a political agenda, and that's what the money was spent on. Now, there were some occasions where we had some personal expenses, which I identified, and I made payments on out of my own pocket at the time those expenses were made. All this money's been accounted for.

Governor, you just don't get it. You just don't get it. This campaign is not about you, and it's not about me; it's about the people watching this program, that are watching their country being fundamentally redefined by this administration and this Congress. They're taking us in a direction that is wrong. And they're looking for people to stand up to this agenda, and offer an alternative. And you're right; there is a distinction. I will stand up to that agenda. Everyone knows that you won't stand up to the Obama agenda; just a year ago, you were campaigning for it.

The debate touched on pretty much all the hot-button issues, including taxes, Social Security, immigration and health care reform. During the 11-month campaign, Rubio has continued to attack Crist for his decision to accept over $8 billion in federal stimulus money. And he cited the latest figures that show Florida with an unemployment rate of over 12 percent.

I don't know how you define stability; having the highest unemployment rate in Florida's history is certainly not stability, especially to the one out of 10 Floridians who can't find a job. The stimulus is a failure.

Crist said taking the stimulus money was the right thing to do, and that without it, the state’s economy would be in even worse shape.

I made the tough decision to utilize these funds to help the people of Florida. I know the unemployment rate is bad. I know the economy is tough. I understand all of that. If we had taken the speaker's approach, we would have 87,000 more people on top of that 12 percent, that would be unemployed in Florida today. Twenty thousand of those, as you indicated, schoolteachers who are teaching our children.

When the talk turned to taxes, moderator Chris Wallace reminded Crist of a “George H.W. Bush” pledge he made four years ago not to raise taxes, in reference to the 66 billion dollar budget Crist signed into law last year that included over $2 billion in tax increases.

Didn't you break your promise to Florida voters?

No, I don't think I did, and I'll tell you why. The only part of it that was a tax, and that's loosely defined as a tax, was on cigarettes. And I would argue that that's a user fee. If you don't use 'em, you don't pay it.

Wallace: But you also signed into law higher fees on driver's licenses and on motor vehicle registration. Governor, 16 million people are drivers in Florida, and there are 18 million motor vehicles.

Crist: And I understand that.

Wallace: That's a pretty broad-based tax, isn't it?

Well, I don't think it's a tax; it's a fee. If you don't drive, you don't pay it.

With regard to health care, both candidates agreed that the newly enacted overhaul will do little to help patients and should be repealed. Crist added that he'd like to see an insurance plan fashioned after one he signed into law in Florida, but which has drawn criticism for its low number of enrollees. This quickly drew a challenge from Chris Wallace.

Let me ask you about that, Governor Crist, because Cover Florida, we looked into it, and you signed it into law two years ago. As you say, all voluntary. No subsidies, no mandates. We looked that up. One tenth of one percent of Florida's uninsured have signed up for it in the last two years. Five thousand out of millions of people.

*Well, let me come back to those five thousand people. For every single one of those five thousand—it's about six thousand now, but I won't quibble over the numbers. But for every individual who now has that peace of mind, who doesn't have to worry about their child having a catastrophic illness, or they themselves—*

Wallace: But it's hardly “Cover Florida,” governor.

*Well, I think it's important that it's “cover families.”*

After a series of polls showing Crist down by almost 30 percentage points, there’s been speculation that he might decide to run as an independent or even a Democrat, or decide to run for re-election as Florida governor. In typical Sunday talk show fashion, Wallace asked Crist if he was willing to dispel those myths and pledge “right here and right now” that he will run as a Republican and not as an independent.

*This is a great party. It has a great future. We have a great opportunity to win in November. It's important that we put a candidate up—*

Wallace: So are you ruling out that you will file as an independent by the April 30th deadline?

That's right. That's right. I am running as a Republican.

Wallace: You will run not for governor, but for Senate, and you will run in the Republican primary?

Chris, I'm running for the United States Senate. I know that our country needs help. I'm running as a Republican.

In his closing statement, Charlie Crist landed one final blow when he asked Rubio, in this testy exchange, why he refuses to release his latest tax return.

Why wouldn't you release your tax return?

Rubio: That's not true. That's not true.

Crist: Oh, it is absolutely true. They're not out; mine are. Mine are out there, and yours haven't. We asked you to do it three days ago, and you still haven't done it. Is it because you're doctoring the books? Is it because of the 34,000 dollars that was raised, and that 600,000 dollars you raised, and shows up—nobody knows where it is, but the IRS may have an issue with it? I don't know, and we don't know.

Wallace: Because of the “doctoring the books” line, you have 15 seconds to respond.

*Rubio: These are outrageous allegations. You know what? This campaign is 11 months old, and this debate is now 40 minutes old, and we have yet to hear a single significant public-policy proposal from Charlie Crist. You just don't—*

Crist: Oh, yeah, we have. I do have ...

Crist has until April 30 to change his party affiliation. The Republican primary takes place Aug. 24.

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