Crist, Rubio primed for first debate

U.S. Senate candidates Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio will bring their Florida battle for the heart and soul of the Republican party to a live national television audience Sunday when they meet for their first debate.

The FOX News faceoff between the once-popular, politically moderate governor and the rising star of the conservative insurgency will mark the first nationally broadcast debate of the 2010 election.

“This is one of the most interesting and certainly the most closely watched election contests this cycle,” said FOX News Sunday host Chris Wallace, whose show averages more than 3.3 million viewers. “It’s a compelling race between two fascinating political figures.”

With a round of attacks and counter-attacks broadcast this week, the stage is set for a contentious Sunday morning.

Crist went first with a television spot striking at Rubio’s image as a conservative golden boy by casting him as a slick insider who has misspent political donations. Rubio quickly shot back with two ads denouncing Crist’s attack and reminding viewers of the governor’s embrace of President Obama’s economic stimulus package.

The backbiting continued Thursday when Crist posted his tax returns and challenged Rubio to do the same. He’s been badgering Rubio to amend his tax returns ever since the former lawmaker acknowledged double-billing state taxpayers and the party for several flights to Tallahassee.

“In some debates I’m struggling to think what to ask, but this is a target-rich environment,” Wallace said. “The toughest job for me is figuring out what I don’t have time for.”

A debate is typically a chance for the underdog to shine, but in this race, Crist is already well known around the state. His challenge will be to try to knock Rubio off his stride.

“The traditional upside of a debate isn’t really there for Crist,” said Martin Sweet, a Florida Atlantic University assistant professor whose political science class started a blog on the Senate race. “He’s behind and frankly desperate at this point, but trying to come across as substantial and painting Rubio as a lightweight is one possibility.”

Rubio has been eager to debate Crist for months and quickly signed onto the proposal from FOX News. He is considered the more talented public speaker, though Crist has more experience doing televised debates from his unsuccessful 1998 Senate bid and his 2006 gubernatorial campaign.

Rubio has never been on a nationally televised Sunday show, according to his campaign. He and Crist will sit at a table and field questions from Wallace without the trappings of a formal debate.

A recent automated poll by Rasmussen Reports shows Rubio continuing to pull ahead of Crist, 56 percent to 34 percent. But Wallace said it’s too soon to count Crist out.

“The idea of saying this race is over in March when the primary is in August seems a little foolish to me,” Wallace said. “A week is an eternity in politics and five months is eons.”