ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The three-way race for the Senate became a discussion of extremes during a debate Wednesday night — radical-right, far-left and all over the place.
Gov. Charlie Crist, who's running as an independent, and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek teamed up to call Republican Marco Rubio a radical conservative. Crist and Rubio said Meek was far-left, and Rubio and Meek said Crist changed his positions to suit his political needs.
In the hour-long exchange, the candidates often talked over each other in heated exchanges as Crist and Meek sought to make up ground against front-runner Rubio, a favorite of the tea party movement. Rubio has called the health care and domestic spending policies of President Barack Obama a disaster.
Crist repeatedly mocked the tea party movement while attacking Rubio, calling him an extremist for wanting to outlaw abortion.
"You haven't been drinking the Kool-Aid, my friend, you've been drinking too much tea and it's just wrong," Crist told Rubio.
Rubio, a former Florida House speaker, pointed out that Crist decided to run as an independent only after falling behind in the Republican primary.
"I think it's always funny to listen to the governor attack me for the positions he himself held just six months ago, when he was trying to be the biggest conservative in the world and win the Republican primary," Rubio said.
Later, Rubio criticized Meek for voting for what the Republican called an even more radical version of the health care overhaul than the one that eventually passed Congress.
"I'm shocked that Marco Rubio would even use word the radical, because I guess he's been called that quite a bit," Meek said.
There were obvious differences between Meek and Rubio. Meek supported the economic stimulus package and said it kept the country from going into a depression; Rubio said it was a failure. Meek said he would vote for the health care overhaul again and Rubio said it should be repealed. Meek wants to continue President George W. Bush's tax cuts for all except those who make more than $250,000, Rubio wants them extended for all earners.
"You think government creates jobs," Rubio said to Meek, cutting him off.
"No, I don't," Meek said.
"You do," Rubio said.
"I think tax cuts for small businesses create jobs and incentives for local communities to move forward," Meek said.
Crist, who supported the economic stimulus and said he likes some things in the health care law but that it needs to be fixed, portrayed himself as a centrist who backs the best policies of each party.
After Meek and Rubio argued over the stimulus, Crist said, "What you just witnessed is the problem and the reason I'm running as an independent. These two guys are going at each other because one's the Republican right, one's the Democratic left. What's true is there are good things that both parties can present to the future of our country."
Meek pointed out that Crist has changed his position on several issues, including once being against allowing gay couples to adopt children and later praising a legal decision that said Florida's ban is unconstitutional.
"Charlie Crist stands on a wet paper box," Meek said. "You don't know where he is."
Rubio said neither Crist nor Meek would oppose the Obama administration.
"The values of Congressman Meek can be found in his voting record. His voting record is virtually identical to (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi's, and Gov. Crist was a Republican six months ago, now he's changed his position on virtually every issue," Rubio said. "People deserve a senator that's going to go to Washington D.C., stand up to the direction they're taking our country and offer an alternative."
Associated Press writer Travis Reed contributed to this report.