Gov. Charlie Crist tried to position himself as the safe path between a rock and hard place as the three candidates fighting it out for Florida’s seat in the Senate held their fifth debate on Sunday.
Crist, once a Republican favorite and a possible candidate on the national ticket, argued that he was the true independent when compared with Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek. It was Meek who said that Crist’s independence was due to the rising “tea party” tide that had pushed Rubio to the fore and Crist out of his own party.
“We know why the governor is running as an independent, because he couldn't beat Marco Rubio,” Meek said during the hourlong debate from the University of South Florida, broadcast live on CNN's “State of the Union.”
The Florida race was once one of the most-watched Senate races in the country as the political world wondered if the tea party could, in effect, take over an established party and elect one of its own. Rubio, the former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, is more conservative than Crist, particularly on issues such as abortion and stem-cell research.
“The Republican Party and the right wing of that party went so far right, it's exactly why Marco Rubio stayed there, it's exactly the same reason that I left,” Crist said, citing “these extreme views that I am not comfortable with.”
“I do think it's curious that he attacks me for positions he held, like, six months ago when he was running in the Republican primary,” Rubio said. “I mean, he changes positions on the issues because he wants to win the election.”
Recent polls show that Rubio is running more than 10 points ahead of Crist, once considered unstoppable in Florida. Meek is getting about one-fifth of the vote even though top Democrats, including former President Bill Clinton, have campaigned for him.
Part of Crist’s strategy was to present himself as the social moderate between his opponents, and on Sunday he stepped in frequently amid their contentious exchanges. Crist was so aggressive that Rubio snapped back: "I've never had a heckler at the debate; I've always had them in the audience."