What the Crist Rubio debate means for the GOP Senate campaign going forward

We posted GOP consultant Chris Ingram's blog yesterday afternoon on his thoughts on the first debate between GOP Senate hopefuls Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist.  It was one of many such posts that permeated the blogosphere on Sunday, as there was great anticipation for the the first mano a mano battle in the most hotly contested Senate race in the country this year.

Our take?  Charlie Crist seemed a bit uncomfortable going on the attack, which he did early and often against his young, upstart opponent.  In his first response from Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace about what's the difference between himself and Rubio, the Governor ripped into his opponent quickly, questioning his character over the allegations of irregularities with GOP campaign funds:

I view public service as a calling, something that you do to try to help other people, to improve their lives, their quality of life. 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 a $600,000 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.

Rubio tried to stay on higher ground, which was easy for him in this battle for the hearts and minds for Florida Republican primary voters.  That is, attack President Obama, and the link between the governor and the president on items like the stimulus bill.

RUBIO: 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 the agenda. Everyone knows that you won't stand up to the Obama agenda because just a year ago you were campaigning for it.

And so it went.  Rubio attacked Crist on his ties with Obama and his mushy conservatism, and Crist accused him of being a fake  (for a scorecard on some of the claims made, specifically on tax increases, check out the folks from PolitiFact today, which gives Rubio higher marks than Crist in truth telling during yesterday's 40 minute debate).

One interesting exchange focused on Social Security, and what needs to be done to keep the entitlement program solvent for decades to come.  Rubio suggested that raising the age of those who receive such payments should be seriously considered, mentioning a plan brought forward by Wisconsin Republican Congressman Paul Ryan.  Whether Ryan's plan is the way to go is tenuous, but it's good to see politicians speaking honestly about concrete proposals like that - which are usually discarded because of the potential for political opponents to demagogue on the issue.

The question of raising the age for people to receive social security was asked by host Chris Wallace:

Rubio: "I think that has to be on the table. That's got to be part of the solution, the retirement age gradually increases for people of my generation. I think it's got to be part of..." Rubio replied.

Wallace: Would you change cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security?

Rubio: "I think all of that has to be on the table, including the way we index increases in cost of living. All of these issues have to be on the table. They have to be options that I would be open to. They are included in the Ryan roadmap. I think it's the right approach to Social Security reform."

It's been speculated in some blogs that Crist will now be able to run in front of seniors and say that Rubio wants to take away their Social Security benefits.  But he said the Ryan plan is talking about making such changes for people under the age of 55 - that is, everybody over that age will continue to collect benefits the way they are now or will be when they hit retirement age.

Then again, Wallace busted Crist on the issue, saying there wasn't a single mention of the program on Charlie's Web site.

A program that Kendrick Meek and other Democrats have blasted Crist on is the state's attempt at a government run health insurance program called Cover Florida, which as Chris Wallace said to the governor yesterday, isn't really doing much of a job covering anyone.

WALLACE: Let me ask about that, Governor Crist, because Cover Florida — we looked into it, and you signed it into law two years ago — stripped- down insurance for stripped-down prices. As you say, all voluntary. No subsidiaries. No mandates. We looked at it.

One-tenth of 1 percent of Florida's uninsured have signed up for it in the last two years, 5,000 out of millions of people.

CRIST: Well, let me talk about those 5,000 people. For every single one of those 5,000 — it's about 6,000 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.

CRIST: Well, I think it's important that it's cover families. People who get it like it. They understand that it makes a difference in their lives. It gives them the peace of mind that they deserve. And I think it's important to understand that.

As wrote earlier, because this is a battle for the hearts and minds of Florida Republican primary voters (i.e., conservative), the governor was on the defensive in a way that he wouldn't be if he were to capture the nomination and face Kendrick Meek this fall.  Crist has been popular with independents because of his moderate brand of GOP politics.

But will those independents go with the very conservative Rubio against Meek in the fall? One point of the debate that stood out to this observer was on the topic of illegal immigration, which generally between two Republicans running for office is a stand-off on who will be harsher for those who are undocumented in this country.  The Cuban American Rubio did seem to give notice that he's aware of the horrible image the party has shown to Latinos in recent years with this remark:

RUBIO: ... because the Republican Party, I think unfortunately, has been cast as the anti-illegal immigration party. It is not the anti- illegal immigration party. It is the pro-legal immigration party. And having a legal immigration system that works begins, as the governor says, with border security.

By the way, it's not enough. About a third of the folks in this country illegally enter legally and they overstay visas. And so we've got to deal with that issue as well.

We've got to deal with the employment aspect of it, because the vast majority of people who enter this country illegally do so in search of jobs, and jobs are being provided to them. So we need some level of verification system so that employers are required to verify the employment status of their folks.

In the wake of the hard fought exchanges, Florida GOP chair John Thrasher said yesterday he's prefer if the boys chill out a bit, saying, "While I appreciate our candidates’ passion for this race and strong desire to serve, I was disappointed in some instances when they appeared to be moving away from the issues and utilizing personal attacks, which I don’t believe benefit the people of Florida, or our Party."

With all due respect, Mr. Chairman, good luck to you on that.

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