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Debate is sound bites vs. substance

Sen. Bob Graham, left, and Charlie Crist shake hands after their televised debate Monday night. [Times photo: Jonathan Newton]



© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 1998

The difference between Bob Graham and Charlie Crist in Monday night's debate can be summed up in one sequence.

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When Timika Smith of St. Petersburg asked the U.S. Senate candidates how they would reduce class sizes, Crist veered off into a discussion about Graham's voting record and efforts to bring more road money to Florida.

"It seems to me if we had a little more energy and a little more enthusiasm and a little harder work fighting for Florida," the St. Petersburg Republican said to wild applause, "we could get a dollar's worth for the taxes our citizens pay."

Countered Graham, the Democrat bidding for his third term: "I would be pleased to yield 30 seconds of my time for him to answer the question."

Crist again gave a general answer. Graham then ticked off three answers to the original question, including using federal money to hire 100,000 more teachers.

That scenario played out over and over, whether the issue was Medicare or the Internal Revenue Service or education.

Crist, sharply dressed and so very polite, offered the perfect sound bite. Graham, wearing his anachronistic Florida tie and looking a bit tired, provided the more substantive answers.

For a Senate race that has never captured voters' attention, Monday night's debate is as good as it is going to get.

Graham, the former governor who remains enormously popular a dozen years after he left Tallahassee for Washington, remains far ahead. No one on the national level considers his seat to be at risk, which is why Crist has had difficulty raising more than $1-million and bringing in national Republican players to campaign with him.

As a state senator, Crist has relied on timing and publicity to advance his political career. He held hearings that forced Gov. Lawton Chiles to admit his 1994 campaign was responsible for deceptive phone calls, filed a lawsuit against Florida Power over a rate increase and embraced crime-fighting when crime was the state's top issue.

But in this campaign, Crist's sense of timing had been missing until the debate.

His campaign slogan, "Join the Fight!", is suited for 1994, when voters were angry and Republicans ran over Democrats. His complaints that Graham triggered the release of thousands of inmates as governor is off-base and irrelevant to a U.S. Senate campaign. His hammering away at Graham for failing to call for President Clinton's resignation is muted by the Democrat's unusually strong criticism of the president.

But Monday night, under the hot television lights, Crist made the most of his minute in the spotlight. He looked and sounded like a credible candidate for statewide office, and he could not be ruffled.

As Crist argued he had not "met one Floridian who wants to keep the IRS except for my opponent," William F. White of St. Petersburg yelled from the audience, "I do."

"And one person in the audience," finished Crist, to laughter.

But the burden of the challenger in any race against an incumbent is to sound as knowledgeable as the officeholder. Cut through Crist's smooth answers, and they were as soft as melted butter.

Try as he might, moderator Tim Russert and Graham could not force the Republican to take a hard position. Crist refused to say whether he favors a national sales tax or a flat tax if the IRS is abolished. And during a discussion on preserving Medicare, the Republican said he would not cut benefits or raise taxes.

Finally, Crist ventured that he would find some money by cutting foreign aid, a small portion of the overall federal budget.

"What Mr. Crist has just said is he would save Medicare by cutting services," Graham responded.

If Crist jumped straight out of GQ, Graham embodied CQ: Congressional Quarterly.

On virtually every issue, the incumbent provided more specifics. Graham talked of cutting waste in Medicare and emphasizing more preventive treatments. He called for putting time limits on programs and turning over some services to the private sector as ways to reduce government.

The Democrat even sounded more Republican than Crist in a question about tax credits for private tuition and vouchers, saying Americans don't want the federal government to decide local issues.

The best exchange occurred over the upcoming Clinton impeachment hearings. In ways Crist's television ads and faxes have failed to do, the debate forced Graham to elaborate on his position.

During a discussion on whether perjury by the president should trigger impeachment, the Democrat responded: "The greater vulnerability for Bill Clinton is obstruction of justice."

If the House finds that the president used government resources such as the Secret Service to cover up his affair with Monica Lewinsky, Graham indicated, that would be grounds for impeachment.

It was the only real concession Crist wrested out of Graham all night.


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