Three major Senate candidates joust in Tampa

10/15/10 Kate Bradshaw
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The three most well-known candidates for Florida’s open US Senate seat debated in Tampa today. All three appear to be zoning in on their desired voting bloc.

The US Senate race has seventeen registered candidates, but many are calling it a three-way race. The three major candidates are staying on message as election season hits the final stretch. Susan McManus is a political science professor at the University of South Florida. She says it’s pretty clear whom each is trying to target.

All three spent significant time on the attack. Republican Marco Rubio said the reason Charlie Crist gives for leaving the Republican Party is a “fairy tale,” that had less to do with principles than ambition. Despite all of the back-and-forth, McManus says there’s no clear winner in today’s debate.

Moderator John Wilson questioned each candidate on a range of topics, from the federal stimulus to each of their reported indiscretions. Rubio flatly denied using a Republican Party credit card for personal expenses. The testiest exchange took place between Rubio and non-party candidate Charlie Crist over Social Security. One Crist television ad insinuates that Rubio wants to cut Social Security benefits for seniors, which Rubio vehemently denies. McManus says this might briefly become a point of contention between the two, but it probably won’t stick.

But she says candidates tend to avoid the issues about which voters want hear most.

After the debate, only one of the three spoke to the press. It was Democrat Kendrick Meek. The Miami member of Congress is the first candidate to qualify for a statewide race by petition. The latest Quinnipiac poll has him third in the running, with about 22% of the vote. Many Democrats are split on whether to vote for Crist, whom some believe has a better chance of winning, and Meek, a lifelong Democrat. One of Meek’s tactics has been to cast Governor Crist as a conservative Republican in disguise, and he does this today.

He says Crist’s attempts to appeal to moderates got in the way of an intelligent political discussion been a Republican and Democrat.

For a little more than a week, it’s been rumored that Meek might leave the race and endorse Crist. One group of South Florida Democrats has come out in favor of this publicly. Meek says he’s in it until the end.

McManus, who says it would be ridiculous for Meek to back out now, adds that two things would prevent a Rubio victory. The first is Democrats lining up behind either Crist or Meek, and the second is more Dems coming out to the polls.

Meek says he thinks he even has a shot a gleaning some conservative votes.

A tape-delayed broadcast of the debate will begin at 6:30 this evening.

Note, the interactive graphic from the Associated Press below is incorrect: it states that Charlie Crist is running as a third party candidate, when in fact he is running without party affiliation. WMNF has notified the AP of their error.

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