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Cross fire shakes Crist from sound bites

Published October 30, 2006


The second and final televised debate Monday night was a rough one for the Republican front-runner.

Moderator Chris Matthews pressed hard for specifics, rattling the normally unflappable attorney general who also faced a tag-team of jabs from Democrat Jim Davis and Reform Party nominee Max Linn, a surprise last-minute addition to the show.

Leading in the polls and outspending Davis more than 4-1 on TV ads, Crist must have left the Tampa studio grateful that he has to hang onto his lead just one week longer.

Talk about great political theater. Barely five minutes before air-time, stunned campaign strategists for Crist and Davis saw a third lectern wheeled in for Linn, who had just won a court order allowing his participation. Lifelong Republican Linn played the protest candidate role to the hilt, bashing both major candidates but taking most shots at Crist.

“Answer the question, Charlie, for a change,” Linn said at one point. He called Crist an “empty suit” and “a rubber stamp for the Republican Party.”

Davis had a strong performance in last week’s debate and a stronger one Monday. Between Matthews barking followup questions that cut off Crist’s normal sound bites and Linn’s bombast about Socialist-leaning Republicans and Democrats, Davis came off as comfortable and quick on his feet.

The Tampa congressman sounded ill-informed when Matthews pressed him on whether voters should be able to take receipts with them after voting, but that was the exception.

Crist in contrast seemed not even to have a decent sound bite ready — a la Bill McBride in his 2002 debate with Gov. Jeb Bush — when Matthews pressed him to explain how he would pay for his numerous spending plans and sweeping tax cuts.

“Where you get the money is, you don’t raise more money at the local level, you give more back to the people. … I never said I was going to cut spending,” Crist said, insisting growth will pay for all Florida’s needs.

Linn was equally vague on how he would slash government spending, while Davis suggested he rescind “special interest tax giveaways.” Crist jumped on that as a Davis promise to raise taxes.

Crist in coming days will surely have to explain how he could claim he spoke out against intervention in the Terri Schiavo case when he didn’t. The claim contradicted what he told the Florida Baptist Witness newspaper — that he helped Gov. Bush fight to keep her alive.

And there was a downright weird exchange when Crist (like Davis and Linn) explained his opposition to gay marriage. Marriage, he said, is a “sacred” relationship — “like I had, before I got divorced.”

Matthews had promised not be the star of the show, but he was certainly a central player in a sometimes chaotic hour and was harder on Crist than Davis.

After rattling Crist on whether Florida’s violent crime rate was up or down, Matthews even likened Crist to former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry.

Early on, the MSNBC host focused heavily on national issues, which in this tough GOP climate nationally also hurt Crist. The attorney general firmly stood behind the unpopular war in Iraq, for instance, and gave the president with 40 percent and lower approval ratings an overall grade of B, while Linn and Davis flunked the president.

He gave Jeb Bush a “strong A,” while Davis gave him a C, and Linn upgraded the governor from C to B, because Bush loaned him a pen.

“Charlie was very clear. If you want the FCAT or you don’t want the FCAT you saw a clear choice tonight,” said Republican Sen. Mel Martinez.

He called the night a big win for Crist, but apparently forgot that polls show a strong majority of voters oppose how the FCAT test is used in Florida’s public schools.

Someone just starting to pay attention to the race did not see in Jim Davis a man of warmth or humor. But they certainly saw a smart and steady prospective governor.

As the candidates debated in Tampa, Bill Clinton headlined a fundraiser in New York that raised more than $100,000 to help the Davis campaign, which is badly trailing in money.

A St. Petersburg Times poll last week showed Davis trailing Crist by six percentage points, and Davis’ strong showing Monday night will further help erode the perception that Crist will waltz easily into the Governor’s Mansion.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at or (727) 893-8241.

[Last modified October 30, 2006, 23:30:38]

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