AT THE RACES: Florida Senate Debate Gets Punchy

Jillian Bandes

10/7/2010 12:33:09 AM - Jillian Bandes

The winner of the best punch-line for the Florida Senate debate last night goes to Charlie Crist, a guy who probably needs the humor more than anyone else.

“You haven’t been drinking the Kool-Aid, my friend, you’ve been drinking too much tea,” said Crist, speaking to Rubio.

It was a little ironic that the man who made the cool-aid joke was the one who looked most like orange Kool-Aid himself; Crist’s signature tangerine coloration was on full display under the WFTV Channel 9 newsroom lighting. But his coloration wasn’t half as distracting as the generally depressed look on his face — the sign of a guy who was clearly tired of being tired.

When that tired face accused Rubio of excess tea consumption, the reaction was a little bit of a half-laugh — a funny, awkward chuckle, tinged with sympathy. First of all, a strong cup of tea might have woken the governor up a little bit. Second of all, Crist is down by about a million percentage points in the polls — in a three-way race where he was supposed to be a shoe-in — and criticizing one of America’s most active grassroots movements seemed desperate more than anything else.

That was Crist’s theme throughout the entire debate, though. He kept referring to the “extreme right,” while glaring at Rubio as though he was some kind of exotic rodent. And Crist kept criticizing the tea party: “It’s abundantly clear that there’s an extreme right wing faction, and I’m the only one to crush that far-right faction and end the tea party in Washington.”

Crist’s main points to back up that claim seemed to be that Rubio opposed abortion rights and wanted to restructure social security. It’s true that Rubio is down the line on abortion issues, and does feel strongly about restructuring social security for those who are under 55. But Rubio said those issues were a distraction from the fact that Crist was in Obama’s pocket, supporting the issues that got Florida into an economic mess along with the rest of the country.

“Our debt problem going forward isn’t because the American people aren’t taxed enough. Our debt problem is going forward because Washington is spending too much money,” said Rubio.

George Stephanopoulos, the star interviewer imported for the debate, seized every possibility to give Crist an opening — and Crist didn’t do a bad job of talking himself up on his “independence” from two-party politics. Sympathy towards the president’s health care proposal probably didn’t do him a whole lot of good, though, and bragging about his party-switch was a bit hackneyed this late in the game. In contrast, Stephanopoulos tried to jab at Rubio for his stance on the debt, asking how Rubio’s support for Bush tax cuts was justified if he was so concerned about the national debt.

"I'll tell you what the justification is. You have to grow the economy by creating a stable and affordable tax code," said Rubio.

Those are the kind of rebuttals that have so effectively shut down the opposition.