- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2010

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, trailing badly in his campaign to rise to the U.S. Senate, dubbed himself a “pragmatic, common-sense conservative” in his first debate with his Republican primary opponent and “tea party”-infused front-runner, former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio.

Knocking down criticism about his support of President Obama’s $832 billion stimulus package, Mr. Crist said Florida has used the more than $8 billion in stimulus to help create or save 87,000 jobs, including 26,000 teaching jobs.

“I think it was the right thing to do at the time,” he said, adding that the economy “was literally falling off a cliff” when he supported the package. “Things are starting to stabilize now and they’re getting better in Florida.”

But his opponent, Mr. Rubio, pointed out that Florida’s unemployment rate has just reached a record 12.2 percent, with 210,000 jobs lost since the Senate passed the bill.

“The stimulus has failed because since that famous day in February where the governor campaigned with Barack Obama on behalf of the stimulus program, 211,000 Floridians have lost their jobs,” Mr. Rubio said.

“And so the choice for Republicans in Florida is: Do you want a candidate that would have stood up to Barack Obama, voted against the stimulus and supported something that would have cost less money and created more jobs?”

Mr. Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, has become a darling of the conservative movement, winning endorsements from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. In January, a struggle between conservative activists and the Republican Party establishment forced state GOP Chairman Jim Greer to quit.

Since then, Mr. Rubio has opened a huge lead over Mr. Crist. He leads by more than 25 percentage points - 56.4 percent to 31 percent - according to an average of all recent polls compiled by Real Clear Politics.

In a debate on “Fox News Sunday,” the two squared off over state and federal issues, but returned several times to Mr. Crist’s support of the stimulus package. The governor defended his support, saying other Republican governors also took the government money.

“We utilized those monies just like Haley Barbour did in Mississippi, just like Sonny Perdue in Georgia - these wild-eyed liberals,” Mr. Crist said of the two staunchly conservative Southern governors. “If we’d taken [Mr. Rubio’s] approach, we would’ve had 87,000 more unemployed, including 20,000 schoolteachers. …

“I stand with people who will help the people of my state and my country. I am a pragmatic, common-sense conservative, always have been.”

But Mr. Rubio said he opposed a move by the Obama administration and Capitol Hill Democrats to “fundamentally restructure government” by spending hundreds of billions of dollars “we don’t have.”

“How does that in any way make sense for Florida or our country?” he said. “The stimulus was a failure. I would’ve voted against the stimulus.” Instead, he would have supported lower capital gains and corporate tax rates.

Mr. Crist kept up the attacks he is using in campaign ads, charging that Mr. Rubio misused political funds for personal expenses. Mr. Rubio called the charges false.

The two also differed over how to handle immigration reform. Mr. Rubio opposed a plan first put forward by President George W. Bush that would have put illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship.

At the end of the 45-minute debate, Mr. Crist was asked whether he would leave the Republican Party if he loses the Aug. 24 primary and run for the Senate as an independent.

“I’m running as a Republican. I’m very proud to be from the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, others that really have stood up for the principles of our party, like Ronald Reagan,” Mr. Crist said.

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