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Crist, Rubio debate hostile

Gov. Charlie Crist tried to chip away at his U.S. Senate rival’s conservative boy-wonder image during their first televised debate Sunday but failed to deliver a broadside powerful enough to level the surging Marco Rubio.

Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace’s pointed questions were more effective than Crist’s constant digs at exposing Rubio’s shortcomings. The debate immediately turned hostile and stayed that way, suggesting that voters should brace themselves for another five months of feuding before the Aug. 24 Republican primary.

The leading Democratic candidate, Kendrick Meek, who trails the Republicans by double digits in the polls, criticized the debate’s negative tone from the sidelines.

Crist and Rubio didn’t agree on much during the 40-minute debate except that the race boils down to “trust.”

The governor said voters can’t trust the former Florida House speaker because he used his party credit card and political committees for “personal enrichment.” Rubio said voters can’t trust Crist to challenge the Democratic administration because he supported President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan.

“Everyone knows you won’t stand up to the Obama agenda because just a year ago you were campaigning for it,” Rubio said.

Crist countered, “If trust and confidence in an individual, what they say and what they do, isn’t relevant, then I don’t know what is.”

He tarred Rubio as a “lawyer/lobbyist” and called the $600,000 he raised for two political committees a “slush fund.” The Miami Herald and The St. Petersburg Times have reported that much of the money went to reimbursing unitemized travel expenses for Rubio and his wife.

Crist tried to capitalize on the examination of Rubio’s spending, mixing Rubio’s political committee expenses with personal expenses on his party credit card, some of which he repaid.

“Is it because you are doctoring the books?” Crist speculated about Rubio’s tax returns, which he has not released. Crist posted his tax returns Friday.

Rubio also stretched the truth. “All the money has been accounted for,” he said. But his campaign has acknowledged to the Herald/Times that he failed to properly disclose $34,000 in expenses for one of his committees, as required by state law. The campaign also declined to detail other payments that were lumped together and paid off with credit cards.

“I wish we would have done a better job of reporting, there’s no doubt about it, and I’ll be the first to admit it,” Rubio said.

If Crist’s challenge was to present himself as an elder statesman in contrast to his younger rival, his sniping got in the way. Rubio showed minimal wear and tear, calmly denying Crist’s allegations as “false” and accusing him of ignoring public policy in favor of personal attacks. “You don’t get it,” Rubio said.

Crist also struggled to defend Obama’s economic plan. He said the spending saved the economy from “literally falling off the cliff,” a claim that many economists support. But Crist’s optimism doesn’t square with the state’s unemployment rate reaching an all-time high of 12.2 percent last month.

“Things have started to stabilize now, and they’re getting better in Florida,” the governor said. The remark recalled former Republican presidential John McCain’s well-documented misstep in 2008 when he said, “The fundamentals of our economy are strong,” as Wall Street crashed.

Wallace kept the conversation moving through a broad range of topics and cut the candidates short when they strayed from the questions.

He highlighted some of Rubio’s more controversial stances, such as his proposal to move away from an employer-based healthcare system, to raise the age requirement for Social Security and to slow down cost-of living increases for recipients.

“I think all of that has to be on the table,” Rubio said.

Wallace’s questions also helped reveal Crist’s more-moderate approach, which could be a tough sell when voters are increasingly fed up with the Obama administration. Rubio’s portrayal of Crist as lacking in substance gained credibility when Wallace said, “We looked all over your campaign website and couldn’t find a word about Social Security.”

Wallace questioned whether Crist broke a no-new-taxes pledge when he supported increasing cigarette taxes and drivers’ license fees to close a budget shortfall last year. In his own defense, Crist made a misleading claim that he signed “the largest tax cut in the history of my state.”

And the governor seemed to contradict himself when he praised the new healthcare law for stopping insurers from refusing to offer coverage to patients with previous illnesses, but later said, “I think what we need to do is go ahead and repeal this thing and start over.”

The pair also answered questions submitted by viewers, with Rubio noting he was “proud” of his association with the tea party activists who have embraced his campaign and Crist defending his decision to run in his — as a viewer noted — “fifth race in 12 years.”

“I am running for the Senate because I know our country needs help,” Crist said.

Asked by Wallace whether he would deny rumors that he plans to run for the Senate as an independent, Crist said, “I’m running as a Republican.”