Tuesday night’s Florida Senate debate may have been the last chance for Crist to pull off a game-changer. Jim DeFede on how the governor’s flailing independent campaign fell short. Plus, Crist has only a 20 percent chance of winning, according to Election Oracle predictions.
Few candidates make more of an effort to remain cool under pressure than Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who travels with a small portable fan that can be positioned at his feet during press conferences and other public appearances. On Tuesday, fearing an oscillation gap, organizers of the most recent Florida Senate debate went out and purchased a trio of fans in order to guarantee breeze parity between Crist and his two opponents, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek.
But with time running out on the Crist campaign, the Republican-turned-independent obviously felt he needed an advantage. So just before the debate got under way, Crist’s travelling fan wrangler replaced the official debate fan with one from the governor’s personal stash of cooling accoutrements. The Crist fan, being slightly larger, could presumably provide more relief.
Unfortunately for Crist, it will likely take a turbine engine to generate enough wind in his flagging sails to overtake Rubio. Crist remains anywhere from 8 to 12 points behind the Tea Party darling and it is difficult to see how Tuesday’s debate is likely to shake that up.
“Marco Rubio has a significant advantage in the polls,” said Todd Harris, a senior strategist with the Rubio campaign. “So every single moment like this that comes and goes without changing the dynamic of the race is a loss for Meek and Crist.”
Throughout the debate, Crist seemed to make little headway against Rubio, who remained confident in both his answers and demeanor. That’s not to say that Crist didn’t try. He repeatedly attacked Rubio as being too dangerous for Floridians to trust.
“I'm a guy who believes in common sense, not nonsense,” Crist said. “I'm running against an extreme right-wing candidate who believes in taking rights away from women, punishing seniors, and punishing teachers.”
• Midterm predictions by the Election Oracle • Howard Kurtz: Desperate Dems AttackCrist launched a new attack against Rubio, questioning the 2006 sale of Rubio’s home to the mother of an influential chiropractor who was seeking support from Rubio on a bill in the Florida Legislature while Rubio was speaker. (Earlier this year, I had conducted an extensive investigation on this sale of the house for CBS4 News in Miami and found that while the timing was curious, nothing improper or unethical took place.)
Rubio decried Crist’s tactics, although he seemed more annoyed than angry. “In front of a live audience in this state, he just launched a vicious personal attack on me based on a falsehood,” Rubio declared.
Crist shot back: “All I've done is tell the truth.”
It’s unlikely anyone watching the debate could tell exactly what it was that Crist was accusing Rubio of doing. And viewers certainly must have wondered why a Miami chiropractor was relevant to this election. Even reporters watching the debate in the media center were left scratching their heads.
After the debate, Rubio’s advisers said Crist’s tactics reveal his level of desperation.
“He looked petty. He looked weak. He looked desperate,” said Harris, the senior Rubio strategist. “Crist is getting so desperate that he is willing to throw just about everything, including the kitchen sink, at Marco Rubio. For a guy who is campaigning to restore civility, he spent the entire debate on the attack.”
Crist “had to be more specific on the issues voters care about,” MacManus said. “The general responses are not convincing people right now.”
Susan MacManus, a political analyst and a professor at the University of South Florida, said Crist’s biggest problem is his overly vague discussions of public policy.
“He had to be more specific on the issues voters care about,” MacManus said. “The general responses are not convincing people right now.”
Rubio is doing well, she said, because he is seen as someone who is willing to answer a direct question. Take Social Security, for example. Rubio has said he is willing to consider raising the retirement age for those who are under the age of 55. Crist has blasted Rubio on that, but offers nothing in response. In fact, Crist’s position is that there is nothing wrong with Social Security, even though it will not be able to sustain itself past 2037.
During the debate, Rubio noted of his opponents: “We have not heard a serious plan on Medicare, on Social Security, on the health-care package—even when pressed. And let me tell you why that matters. This election can’t be like the other ones, because the stakes are too generational, they are too high. We are literally deciding what kind of country our children are going to inherit.” That message, MacManus said, is resonating with voters.
While Crist kept attacking Rubio, the governor found himself having to fend off blows from Meek, who remains mired in third place.
At one point in the debate, Crist used the term “Obamacare” when discussing health-care reform. Meek, an unapologetic supporter of the president’s health-care law, said he was amazed the governor referred to it in such a derisive manner.
“I’m just shocked to hear the new lingo from the governor talking about Obamacare,” Meek said. “I wonder if he said that to the president when he was walking with him on the beach [following the Gulf oil spill].”
“When we were on the beach, we were protecting Florida,” Crist replied. “And that’s what I talked to him about.”
“But you are for offshore drilling,” Meek interrupted.
“No I’m not,” the governor said. “I’m opposed to it.”
“Oh, now you are,” Meek said mockingly. “I don’t know, you were there with Sarah Palin a couple years ago saying, `Drill baby drill.’”
“I never said `Drill baby drill,'” Crist said somewhat exasperated.
“You were clapping,” Meek snapped.
“I was there to support my friend John McCain,” Crist offered, clearly tired of the exchange.
In that moment, not even the fan could save him.
Jim DeFede, a longtime South Florida investigative reporter, works for CBS4 News in Miami.