With just 18 days to go before Floridians finish voting in one of the state's longest and most high profile U.S. Senate races ever, the status quo appeared to be unaffected after Friday afternoon's debate at the studios of WTVT-Fox 13 in Tampa.
Marco Rubio maintains a solid,double-digit lead over both independent Charlie Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek, and it's doubtful that anything happened during the hour long forum to change that equation significantly.
Meek is facing the toughest moment of his candidacy, as there are signs that more Democrats are hoping - some explicitly - that he drop out of the race and let Democratic voters flock to Charlie Crist, considered by conventional wisdom to be the last best hope to knock down Rubio, who has become a national conservative icon over the course of the past year.
Meek asserted himself throughout the televised session as the voice of the working class, his natural Democratic party base that has been eroding ever since Governor Crist switched to become an independent in late April when he realized it was no longer possible that he could win as a Republican.
But that's not the way Crist has been spinning it, employing the same strategy he did in the debate nine days ago, when Meek and Rubio would get into a heated exchange regarding public policy, before smiling when it came his turn to bemoan the partisan arguing as a reason he left the GOP and became an independent.
But several times in the debate Rubio challenged him on that statement, citing a St. Petersburg Times article that reported that Crist had taken a poll shortly before he left the GOP last April, which convinced him that going indie was his only viable road to victory.
"That's a fairy tale, Governor," Rubio said. It would not be the only time he grew cross at Crist.
Nothing got the former House Speaker's blood flowing more than when Crist, saying he was quoting a column written in the Ybor City newspaper La Gaceta by editor Patrick Manteiga, said that Rubio had "turned his back on the Hispanic family," referring to his opposition to the DREAM Act, proposed legislation that would allow undocumented immigrant students to pursue a college degree.
Rubio responded by saying it was "offensive and outrageous," for Crist to say such a thing. Crist reacted immediately by saying he was just quoting the newspaper, but Rubio wasn't buying that qualification, saying, "You're saying I've turned my back on my family....you shouldn't repeat that."
Rubio also reacted strongly to what it appeared to be outright falsehoods promoted by Crist when it came to the sensitive issue of Social Security, where Crist has received nearly universal condemnation for misstating Rubio's position on what used to be dubbed the third rail of American - and certainly Florida - politics.
Rubio fought back by claiming (accurately) that Crist had changed his position on the issue now, where he now says the entitlement program is essentially in okay shape, yet six months earlier on Fox News Sunday had agreed with Rubio that it was in trouble financially.
For the second straight debate, Crist repeatedly tried to paint Rubio as a right-wing extremist, frequently citing two bills that came from the Republican led Legislature this past spring on teacher reform (the infamous SB 6) and a bill that would require pregnant women to pay for an ultrasound that Rubio supported. Crist went further than ever before, saying that Rubio wanted to get rid of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 federal law that made abortion legal in the U.S.
But Rubio gamely fought back, citing Crist's support of a draconian South Dakota law in 2006 that would have been one of the harshest such anti-abortion laws in the country, and said he had criticized Jim Davis during the '06 gubernatorial race simply for being a pro-choice liberal.