Florida U.S. Senate candidates used Sunday morning’s nationally televised debate at USF’s Theatre 1 to speak directly to college students, jockeying for a position as the heated race enters its final week.
The event , which was hosted in partnership by CNN, the St. Petersburg Times, USF and Student Government (SG), had Senate hopefuls Republican Marco Rubio, Democrat Kendrick Meek and independent Charlie Crist framing arguments about how they would lead the state better than their opponents while fending off attacks of character in an hour-long debate that aired on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
CNN political correspondent Candy Crowley and Times’ political editor Adam Smith served as moderators for the debate and gauged the candidates’ international and economic policies. Three students also had the opportunity to ask questions.
The candidates’ economic policies were the main topic of conversation.
Meek said a second stimulus bill like the Recovery Act, would provide tax cuts for small businesses and boost Florida’s economy.
“I think it’s very important to know that the stimulus was set to be the floor, not necessarily the silver bullet to job recovery,” Meek said. “And I think it’s done quite a bit in the state of Florida. It started us off on this real initiative to have high-speed rail not only here in Tampa but going all the way to Orlando. That’s going to be the beginning of creating new jobs.”
Instead of passing another stimulus bill to create jobs, Rubio said the focus should be on creating an environment where the private sector can grow.
“The natural state of the economy is to grow, and if it’s not growing, it’s because something is keeping it from growing,” he said. “In America, if you ask the job creators … they will tell you that the reason why they’re not hiring people next year is because they’re afraid of what next year’s going to mean in term of taxes, regulation and the health care bill.”
For Crist, the answer lies in tax cuts and “reigned in government spending.”
“As governor, I’ve reduced spending by $7.4 billion and signed into law the largest tax cut in the history of our state,” he said. “But I also am practical enough to appreciate that we’re in a global economic meltdown. You know, people needed help. A lot were on unemployment compensation. We had to extend it so that those families could continue to have the opportunity to serve their families a meal.”
The debate quickly turned accusatory after Crowley asked the candidates about their willingness to compromise on issues.
“You know, facts change all of the time,” Crist said. “I think people want an open-minded senator rather than the opposite, a closed-minded senator, and is honest enough to say, ‘You know, things change’ … That’s why I’m running as an independent, to give the people of Florida a choice.”
Rubio said Crist’s “open-minded” approach is indicative of a shifting platform.
“He changed his position to win the election,” Rubio said. “He tries to bring (different) issues up because he’s wrong on the real issues.”
Meek cast himself as an alternative to the conservative agenda and those that neglect bipartisanship in Congress.
“I think (Crist), all through this campaign, has been about desperation,” Meek said in a statement following the debate. “I said it clearly. He sits at that table because he nominated himself to be there. I won the Democratic nomination. I qualified by petition. I think people are going to see that grassroots campaign turn into something. I think (Rubio) has a lot of unanswered questions. He needed to be heckled as far as I’m concerned.”
Student body President Cesar Hernandez asked the candidates about their views on immigration and plans to secure the nation’s borders.
Crist said he is a staunch advocate of the DREAM Act, which requires children of immigrants to either attend college or join the military to gain citizenship, and that additional law enforcement officers should be employed to enforce borders.
Meek also supported the act. However, he said those who travel to the U.S. illegally should still pay the penalties for doing so, including those who overstay their visas.
An electronic verification system that would allow employers to ensure they hire legal workers would help dissipate the immigration problems facing the country, Rubio said. However, children who were brought to the U.S. by their illegal parents should continue to receive the opportunity many seek within its borders.
According to a straw poll conducted on campus last week, both Crist and Rubio received 31 percent of student votes while Meek received 30 percent.
But Edwin Benton, a professor of political science and public administration, said the main challenge facing Crist and Meek will be distinguishing themselves as the “person who would beat Rubio,” as he has stolen the vote in state-wide straw polls.
“We’ve heard rumors about people trying to convince Meek to leave the race and unite on the issue with whoever has the best chance of beating Rubio, but I don’t think we’ll see either of those candidates drop out,” he said. “What they were trying to do today was convince the voters, and I’m not sure they did, why they should pick them … It turned into one of those three-way free-for-alls, trying to bash one another. Rubio just watched them battle and beat up on one another, and all that tends to help him.”
Karissa Gerhke, a senior majoring in biology and president of the USF Student Environment Association (SEA), organized a protest at the event with the help of the Southern Energy Network, an environmental group, and students from around the state.
“We want to call on them to add climate change (to the agenda),” she said. “To be champions of clean energy, stimulate the economy and create jobs.”
Despite their efforts, renewable energy resources were not discussed during the debate, a fact that is reflective of the driving questions in the Nov. 2 election, Benton said.
“When voters go to vote, most will make their decision upon the issues that were discussed,” he said. “Whether or not the candidates and the folks from CNN were aware that the protesters were there, I don’t think the script would have changed in terms of the questions asked.”
SG Chief of Staff Ken Getty said the day before the debate, which was held at 9 a.m., he found out that 100 additional seats were added to the 193 made available for students. Organizers of the debate were unable to fill all of the seats for the event.
“I’m not going to say it’s disappointing,” he said. “I feel like we successfully pulled it off.”
A gubernatorial debate will be held today at 7 p.m. in Theatre 1, where Benton said the deciding factors for voters will be similar.
“The thing that I believe it will come down to in Florida is, ‘Who do you trust most in the campaigns?’ – the integrity,” he said. “‘Who do you trust most as an honest person running your state?'”
– Additional reporting by Brittany Cerny, Ian Lanphier and Diedra Rodriguez