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Candidates gang up in Senate debate

By Gabriella Schwarz, CNN
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Debate fireworks
  • Meek, Crist try to portray Rubio as too rigidly conservative for Florida
  • Crist says he would have left the Republican Party even if he had won the primary
  • Meek says Crist left the GOP "because he couldn't beat Marco Rubio"
  • Rubio is the front-runner, according to CNN/Time/Opinion Research Corp. poll

Washington (CNN) -- The three-way Florida Senate race seemed more of a two-sided contest Sunday as Republican front-runner Marco Rubio's opponents both targeted him in a debate on CNN's "State of the Union."

Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek and Republican-turned-independent Gov. Charlie Crist both tried to portray Rubio as too rigidly conservative for Florida in the spirited hour-long debate.

Crist, who launched an independent campaign after losing the Republican primary to Rubio, said he would have left the Republican Party even if he had won the primary.

"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."

But Rubio, a former state representative, shot back that Crist was switching positions out of political expediency rather than true conviction.

"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."

Meek also attacked Rubio, almost warning Floridians against him.

"It's important that we grow this economy ... it's the very reason we should not federalize Marco Rubio," Meek said. "He is thinking of ideology that would put the middle class in the hole forever."

Video: Florida debate post-game report
Video: Changing positions
Video: Fixing Florida
Video: Compromise on tax cuts?

On his economic policies, Meek said, "I can tell you what Mr. Rubio is talking about is not a solution, it's ideology."

In a back-and-forth that defined their campaigns, Crist depicted Rubio as a conservative ideologue unable or unwilling to deviate from extreme views regardless of changing dynamics.

"You know, facts change all the time," Crist said. "I think people want an open-minded senator rather than the opposite, a closed-minded senator."

Crist tried to present himself as an independent throughout the debate, at one point calling the conversation between Meek and Rubio over tax cuts an example of partisan "bickering" that voters dislike.

"You are seeing it right now, right here," Crist said. "That is why I'm running as an independent."

Meek offered a different reason, saying: "We know why the governor is running as an independent, because he couldn't beat Marco Rubio."

The tax-cut issue, revolving around whether to extend Bush-era tax cuts scheduled to expire at the end of 2010, demonstrated the different stances of each candidate.

President Barack Obama calls for extending the tax cuts to everyone making up to $200,000 a year, or $250,000 for families, which is 98 percent of the population. The rates on income above those figures would return to higher levels of the 1990s under the Obama plan.

Rubio insisted all the tax cuts should be extended, saying no one in America should pay higher taxes at a time of high unemployment and sluggish economic growth.

"It's a bad time to raise taxes on anybody," Rubio said. "The only way to improve the economy is by growing the economy and fiscal constraint, and you have to do both."

Crist said that position showed Rubio's inability to break from rigid ideology.

"He (Marco Rubio) wouldn't accept tax cuts on 98 percent of the people in America because of his ideology," Crist said. "That's exactly the problem, that's what's not right with Washington today."

While Crist advocated a compromise, Meek backed the Obama position.

At one point Crist and Rubio repeatedly talked over each other as Crist tried to focus the discussion on Rubio's finances.

Crist charged Rubio with questionable financial dealings, something Rubio denied, saying Crist was trying to divert attention from his own losing policies.

When Crist continued his attack, an exasperated Rubio said: "I've never had a heckler at the debate. I've always had them in the audience. I mean, I've had this heckler going on for two minutes now."

According to the most recent CNN/Time/Opinion Research Corporation poll of likely voters, 46 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for Rubio, while 32 percent said they would vote for Crist and 20 percent would support Meek. The survey had a sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.