Debate: Crist tries to distance himself from Obama

DAVIE, Fla. (AP) — Gov. Charlie Crist tried to distance himself from President Barack Obama in a debate Tuesday after months of reaching out to Democrats in his independent bid for Senate, and Republican Marco Rubio made a case against the extremist tag his opponents are giving him.

Crist, as he has in the last two Senate debates, attacked Rubio as far right because of the Republican's position against abortion rights and his support for a tough Arizona immigration law. Rubio has in past debates hammered at the point that Crist — a lifelong Republican until going independent in April — is a political opportunist. He toned it down in the fourth one to instead try to debunk the extremist label.

"The things I believe in are pretty simple to understand," Rubio said. "I believe that the economy doesn't grow because of politicians, it grows because of people that start businesses or expand existing businesses. I believe our government cannot continue to spend more money than it takes in. And I believe the world is a safer and better place when America is the strongest country in the world."

Exchanges were more heated between Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek and Crist, who are struggling to make up ground against Rubio in the polls. Crist was running as a Republican until he fell far behind Rubio in the polls. He filed as an independent candidate just before the deadline to make the ballot and later changed his voter registration so he had ties to neither major party.

Crist, who lost much of his Republican support by appearing with Obama at a rally to push for the passage of the $787 billion stimulus, referred a couple of times to "Obamacare" as a slight to the health care overhaul the president signed into law.

"Obamacare was off the charts, was wrong. It taxed too much, has mandates that are probably unconstitutional, and it's not the way to go. And it was rammed through," said Crist, who has previously said both that he would support a repeal of the law and that he would seek to fix, but not repeal it, because it has some good things.

And in another attempt to put a gap between himself and the president, Crist also criticized Obama for not following through on his promise of working with both parties.

"The president started out originally saying I'm going to work across the aisle — 'I'm going to reach across the aisle and make sure that we get everybody involved in the solutions that matter to the people of America,'" Crist said. "It hasn't happened. It needs to happen."

Meek seemed incredulous that Crist would use the strategy of criticizing Obama. Meek has been frustrated that Crist is having some success in his overt outreach to Democratic voters.

"It really is mind boggling to me how, governor, you can stand there and start throwing out accusations saying, 'Oh Obamacare!'" Meek said. He also made a reference to Crist cozying up to the president when it helped him, like the much photographed walk on the beach Crist and Obama had during the Gulf oil spill.

"I'm just shocked to hear now the new lingo from the governor talking about Obamacare. I wonder if he said that to the president when he was walking with him on the beach," Meek said.

The comment led to one of the testiest exchanges of the debate, with Crist and Meek ignoring the moderator with a back and forth over offshore oil drilling, which Crist was open to until the BP spill.

"When we were on the beach we were protecting Florida and that's what I talked to him about," Crist said.

"You're for offshore oil drilling," Meek said, cutting him off.

"No I'm not," said Crist.

"You were with Sarah Palin a couple of years ago saying 'Drill, baby, drill," Meek said, referring to Crist's campaign appearances for Palin when she was Sen. John McCain's running mate in 2008.

"I never said drill baby, drill," Crist said.

"You were clapping," Meek said.

At one point Rubio expressed frustration that no solutions to federal issues like Medicare, health care and Social Security were being discussed during the debate.

"We are now literally half way through this debate, we are less than two weeks away from Election Day, on question after question this panel's answered, we have not heard a plan," Rubio said. "This election can't be like the other ones. The stakes are too high."

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