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Crist, Rubio face off in 1st Fla. Senate debate

TALLAHASSEE – Gov. Charlie Crist repeatedly assailed opponent Marco Rubio’s handling of political contributions Sunday in the first debate of the Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat in Florida, while Rubio questioned whether the governor would fight President Barack Obama’s agenda.

Rubio’s income has increased as the former House speaker has gained power, Crist said as he criticized the way Rubio has spent money raised through a political committee.

“I view public service as a calling, something that you do to help other people, to improve their lives,” Crist said in the debate on “Fox News Sunday.” “Speaker Rubio views public service as a way to enhance his personal enrichment. And that’s just wrong.”

Rubio called the allegations false and noted that the funds in question weren’t taxpayer money. He said Crist was more focused on political attacks than federal policies.

Rubio has gained national attention by erasing Crist’s enormous lead in early polls with a message about conservative principles and repeatedly reminding people that the governor hugged Obama while campaigning for passage of the $787 billion federal stimulus package.

Crist defended his support of the stimulus, saying GOP governors in Mississippi and Georgia also accepted money after Congress passed the package. Neither, however, pushed for it.

“When it came to the stimulus, it was money to help our economy now. Things have started to stabilize now and they’re getting better in Florida,” Crist said.

Rubio said the stimulus was a failure and noted Florida’s record 12.2 percent unemployment rate was far from stability.

“All he wants to talk about is tearing me down, personal attacks, etc.,” he said. “He talks about making sense. How does spending $787 billion of money we don’t have, money we’re borrowing from Chinese and Japanese investors, money that my children and their generation are going to have to work their whole life to pay the interest and principle on – how does that in any way make sense for Florida or for our country?”

In a rare moment about policy, Crist disagreed with Rubio’s support to raise the retirement age for Social Security to control costs. Rubio said he would raise the age for younger generations, not those nearing retirement.