Republican Marco Rubio and Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy battled over immigration, gun regulations and each other’s background Monday in the first of two televised debates in Florida’s nationally watched U.S. Senate race.
But each aired his toughest attack when linking the opponent to his party’s presidential nominee.
“I don’t understand how Sen. Rubio can look himself in the mirror and still stand by Donald Trump’s side,” Murphy said.
But Rubio swung back.
“If Congressman Murphy trusts Hillary Clinton 100 percent, he’s in rare company,” Rubio said. “Not even Tim Kaine is willing to say that, and he’s her running mate.”
The hourlong debate from the University of Central Florida in Orlando was aired on ABC-TV stations across the state, including WPBF-TV Channel 25 in West Palm Beach. Cox Media Group radio stations in Orlando and Jacksonville also broadcast the debate live.
Murphy, a two-term congressman from Jupiter making his first statewide run, repeatedly tried to hang Rubio’s endorsement of Trump around the neck of his opponent. But Rubio attempted to distance himself from Trump and his faltering campaign – although not completely.
Rubio said Americans are faced with a “horrifying choice” of presidential nominees. He called Clinton and Trump “two deeply flawed candidates.”
“There’s no doubt there’s a lot of things I disagree with the nominee of my party, and I’ve taken him on when he said things that are wrong on policy and I’ve condemned him when he said things that are aggressive, outrageous, vulgar and inappropriate,” Rubio said.
But Rubio also ripped Clinton for her handling of classified email and for her handling of the 2012 attacks at Benghazi, Libya.
“The problem is the other party has nominated someone who has repeatedly violated federal law,” he said, adding, “They nominated someone we cannot trust with classified material. They nominated someone who lied.”
Rubio and Murphy are slated for only one more debate, to be aired on statewide TV Oct. 26, from Broward College in Davie.
For Murphy, the face-offs with Rubio may prove pivotal. They’re a chance not only to let more Floridians see him in action, they could convince national Democrats to pour more money into the state to help him unseat Rubio.
While polls show Rubio well-known to most Floridians, Murphy is still introducing himself to many voters as the race enters its final weeks. GOP organizations and allied groups have spent more than $20 million against Murphy, outpacing anti-Rubio spots by a 4-to-1 margin.
Four non-partisan candidates sued in federal court to be included in Monday night’s debate, but were rejected earlier in the day by U.S. District Judge Rodney Smith.
Murphy pressed Rubio to explain his long history of absenteeism in the U.S. Senate and his frequent complaining about the job he wants again.
Under questioning from moderator Jonathan Karl of ABC-TV, Rubio also said for the first time that he would serve a six-year term if elected. But he ducked answering whether he would make another run for president in four years.
“I’m going to be a senator for the next six years on behalf of the state of Florida,” Rubio said. “You can’t be senator and president at the same time.”
Murphy, though, ridiculed Rubio for having cited the June shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando for helping inspire him to seek a second term in the Senate. Rubio, who is backed by the National Rifle Association, has failed to support measures that would reduce gun violence, Murphy said.
The mother of a victim of the nightclub massacre, which killed 49 people, cut a TV spot this week for Murphy.
“We must close the terrorist loophole,” Murphy said. “We must expand background checks to ensure that these weapons are not getting in the wrong hands. We should be investing more in mental health.”
Murphy said, “These are things supported by the vast majority of Americans.”
But the Democrat said Rubio, “who has taken millions from the gun lobby, is doing their bidding in the U.S. Senate. That is shameful.”
Murphy also accused Rubio of walking away from Florida’s immigrant community, after being once viewed as their possible champion in the Senate. Murphy supports legislation that would include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
“You turned your back on those who trusted you the most,” Murphy said, telling Rubio, “that when you decided to run for president, you flip-flopped.”
Rubio was one of eight authors of a 2013 Senate bill that included a path to citizenship, but after drawing opposition within his own party, has since said the U.S. must secure the border first and then gauge what voters and Congress would next support.
“Listen, immigration is not something I read about in a book,” said Rubio, the bilingual son of Cuban-American immigrants. “Nor is it an issue that I discovered four weeks ago when Patrick Murphy’s consultants told him he had to do better with Hispanics.”
The two contenders also traded fire on their resumes.
Rubio chided Murphy for having walked back an exaggerated claim about his academic background – boasting of two degrees from the University of Miami, when he has one. Rubio also questioned Murphy’s record as a business owner and certified public accountant.
Citing Murphy’s relocation to Jupiter to run for office, party switching from Republican to Democrat, and even using the name Patrick, after earlier being known by his middle name, Erin, Rubio said, “That’s not a flip-flop, that’s a metamorphosis.”
Murphy, though, said Rubio couldn’t be trusted – given his likely goal of another presidential run and his already lackluster attendance record.
“Think about what’s at stake in this election,” Murphy said. “We could do so much more. But you’ve got to show up to work.”
U.S. House candidates Randy Perkins, Brian Mast also debate, B1
Florida House District 82 race a rematch, B2
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