By CURTIS KRUEGER
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 1998
T. PETERSBURG -- U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and Republican challenger Charlie Crist took the stage Monday night and gave Florida voters a clear choice: a tested performer or a change agent.
Their positions were different, and so were their styles.
Crist, 42, well-tailored and polished, promised that he has the energy and drive to make tax cuts "mission one." Graham, 61, wearing the same kind of Florida tie he has worn for years, pointed to a man in the audience he had helped out of an IRS mess.
The debate in Mahaffey Theater, produced jointly by the St. Petersburg Times and NBC, was punctuated many times by an enthusiastic crowd, made up in large part of the candidates' supporters. It was the only televised debate for the two men, who are scheduled to meet later in the week on radio.
Both men appeared well-practiced and treated each other cordially throughout the debate. Their differences, however, were immediately sharp.
Crist, a Republican state senator from St. Petersburg for the past six years, stood by his call to abolish the IRS and replace it with a national sales tax or a flat tax. He did not waver, even when moderator Tim Russert of NBC News pointed to bipartisan studies showing such a plan could lead to a 15 percent or 16 percent sales tax or a 21 percent flat tax.
"I have not met one Floridian who wants to keep the IRS except for my opponent and one person in the audience," Crist said.
Graham, a 12-year U.S. senator and former Florida governor known for his love of policy, hammered on Russert's point. A flat tax would mean charitable contributions and home mortgage interest would no longer be tax-deductible, he noted. A national sales tax would have to be imposed at 15 percent to 16 percent to raise adequate revenue.
"I don't think that's what Americans want," he said.
What Americans do want is a simpler tax system, Graham said, touting his work in abolishing the capital gains tax on the sale of most primary residences.
He said he wanted to press on revising the tax code until "every American can fill out their own income tax return."
Crist shot back by pointing to Graham's vote for the 1993 deficit reduction act. Graham credits the act, which raised taxes by $241-billion, with turning the federal deficit into a surplus.
"Unfortunately, Bob Graham voted for it. Remember, it passed by one vote," Crist said, repeating a favorite campaign theme.
"So but for Bob, we wouldn't have all those taxes."
Crist, underfinanced and trailing in the polls, nonetheless appeared calm and confident as he faced one of Florida's most popular politicians.
"His performance, at least to some degree, gave him some credibility as a candidate," said political scientist Susan MacManus of the University of South Florida.
Graham countered many of Crist's charges by pointing to specific aspects of his own legislative record. And he didn't let Crist get away with being vague.
At one point he offered to give Crist 30 seconds of his debate time, saying Crist had failed to answer an audience member's question. Crist accepted the offer.
Crist slammed Graham for votes on Social Security and Medicare. Each time, Graham said his actions were responsible moves made to improve those programs's financial stability, and followed up with specific examples.
Crist criticized Graham's vote for a tax increase on the upper 13 percent of Social Security recipients, which was part of the deficit reduction bill. He also pointed out Graham's vote for a bill, which ultimately failed, to increase the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67.
But Russert had a question for Crist: Since the number of people on Medicare is expected to grow from roughly 40-million to more than 60-million, what would you do to stabilize the program?
Crist said it could be accomplished without cutting programs or increasing taxes: "I think our citizens are taxed to death and in fact they are."
Graham pressed him on the point.
"What Mr. Crist has just said is that he will save Medicare by cutting services," Graham said.
"If you do not look at some of the fundamental reforms such as I have suggested . . . the only way that you can make Medicare solvent is to cut services."
Graham advocated tougher governmental efforts to combat Medicare fraud, and changing the Medicare cost-of-living formula to reflect the real costs faced by seniors, particularly in health care.
Graham also said that the government needs to provide easier access to Medicare health maintenance organizations, and that HMO patients in general should be allowed easier access to specialists and emergency room visits.
John Rother, legislative director for the American Association of Retired Persons, said neither candidate offered a real solution to Medicare: "Obviously we would have hoped for a more realistic discussion on some of the tradeoffs."
Asked about President Clinton, Crist said, "I believe the best thing he could do is to resign the office of the presidency." Crist said Clinton should be subject to impeachment if he committed perjury or obstructed justice.
Graham's answer was far more vague. He said lying could be an impeachable offense "if it is found that it was directed against the institutions of our nation." Obstruction of justice could merit impeachment if Clinton had used the agencies of the government "as a means of covering up his private actions."
Previously, Graham has said it would be better for the nation if Clinton remains in office.
At times, the Republican and the Democrat seemed to sound each other's themes. Crist urged environmental protections and called for an end to the federal price supports for "Big Sugar."
Asked by an audience member what government agency they would cut, Crist said probably none -- except the IRS. Graham said he would like to kill the Federal Highway Administration and allow the states to pick up its functions.
After the debate, Crist said the program may have been an eye-opener for Florida voters: "In terms of (Graham) being out of touch and voting for big government, more taxes and more regulation, I think they saw more of that than they probably realized before."
But Graham said that he made the points he wanted to make.
"Mr. Crist was having a difficult time making the transition from being a state senator to thinking about issues from a federal perspective," he said.