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Questions, candidates offer up 3-ring circus

A blunt moderator and extra hopeful add to the sharp talk.

Published October 30, 2006


TAMPA — With the surprise, last-minute inclusion of a third candidate in Monday’s gubernatorial debate, Republican frontrunner Charlie Crist took a beating from two sides as the tightening contest enters its final week.

Reform Party candidate Max Linn, who won a court ruling 20 minutes before the 7 p.m. debate, criticized Democrat Jim Davis but reserved his venom for Crist, the state’s attorney general.

Linn called Crist a “rubber stamp for the Republican Party,” questioned his ties to the insurance industry and mocked the lavish fundraisers that have given Crist an enormous money advantage.

Crist also seemed the most troubled by moderator Chris Matthews’ blunt interviewing style. Matthews cut off Crist several times during the televised debate and aggressively tried to pin him down on specifics.

Unsatisfied with Crist’s answer about the crime rate in Florida, Matthews compared him to Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry, who in the 1980s expressed optimism as the murder rate soared in that city.

The result was a raucous three-way debate featuring regular bouts of cross talk by the candidates and the moderator that often seemed to leave U.S. Rep. Davis looking like the least ruffled in the group.

Davis managed to reinforce for viewers his opposition to how the FCAT is used and to tout his proposal to increase Florida’s role in the insurance market to try lowering premiums.

The debate — the second and final of the race — began with questions on national issues, including the war in Iraq, before moving to the issues of homeowners insurance and property taxes that have been the featured topics of the campaign.

Despite being ganged up on, Crist scored some of his main points, including raising questions about Davis’ plan to cut property taxes by $1-billion next year. Doing so would require the Republican-controlled Legislature to repeal existing tax cuts.

“Let’s understand what my opponent just said,” Crist said, turning directly to the camera. “He wants to raise your taxes.”

Crist deftly navigated around what local government services he would propose cutting for his $2-billion tax break, suggesting Florida’s growing population would stave off service cuts.

Crist has proposed doubling the homestead exemption and making the Save Our Homes tax break portable, though the changes would require a constitutional amendment, delaying implementation.

Crist also managed to shoehorn in a dig at Davis’ record of missed votes in Congress due to campaigning. “He’s got the second worst attendance record in the United States congress,” Crist said. “You can’t stand up, Jim, if you don’t show up.”

“The reason the seat is empty is because I don’t sit down,” Davis replied. “I stand up. I will stand up to these insurance companies, something Charlie Crist has failed to do.”

In came Linn. He too criticized Crist’s plan for insurance, which would compel companies to offer homeowner policies if they sell other lines of coverage in Florida, particularly car insurance.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Linn, who framed most of his answers into blunt attacks on the two mainstream candidates.
Crist, who in answer to a Matthews question rated Gov. Bush’s performance as a “strong A,” nonetheless said he disagreed with Bush’s calls for intervention in the Terri Schiavo end-of-life case. Crist said he believed such decisions should be left to God and family.

Did you speak up when the U.S. Congress got involved? Matthews pressed. “Yes I did,” Crist replied.

“No, he didn’t,” called out Davis, who helped lead the effort against intervention.

Asked if Florida has a crime problem, Crist said it is at a 35-year low. And he touted his proposal for an Anti-Murder bill, to keep harmful offenders off the streets. “My opponent …”

“You’re out of time, I’m sorry,” Matthews interrupted.

But Davis saw an opportunity, noting that overall crime may have decreased but murder has gone up. “Charlie, while campaigning, hasn’t done anything about this.”

The makeup of the debate changed dramatically Tuesday afternoon when U.S. District Judge James Whittemore granted an emergency order allowing Linn to participate.

He had also gone through the courts to participate in the first debate last week, but was rejected.

Linn, a 46-year-old retired financial planner from Treasure Island who has largely self-financed his campaign, took his fight to court Monday after WFLA-TV denied his request to be included in the debate.

According to court documents, the television station told Linn he couldn’t participate unless he could show he had 7 percent support statewide in an independent poll of likely voters. A recent Mason-Dixon poll showed his support at 1 percent.

In response, Linn commissioned a poll last week by National Business Communications Inc., a Clearwater firm, which showed he had about 9 percent support. But Rachel Fugate, a lawyer representing WFLA and its parent company, Media General, said Linn’s poll didn’t meet the necessary requirements.

“Mr. Linn paid for the poll,” Fugate said. “That is by no means an independent poll.”

Linn’s complaint bounced from state court to federal court and back Monday . Finally,  Whittemore said barring Linn from the debate would violate his right to free speech. At that point, it was 6:40 p.m., just 20 minutes before the debate was to start.

“Mr. Linn, you better get going,” Whittemore said, as Linn and his joyful supporters rushed from the courtroom.

Staff writers Carrie Weimar and Joni James contributed to this report.

[Last modified October 30, 2006, 23:15:33]

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