Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Patrick Murphy tried to to focus largely on policy during a televised debate Wednesday, but neither man could escape from attacks that have dogged them for months.
Rubio was blasted for his attendance record, one of the worst in the Senate, while Murphy was criticized his limited record congressional accomplishments. And while neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump were anywhere near the Broward College stage, both presidential hopefuls loomed large over the debate.
The debate — hosted by Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association — was the second, and likely final, time the two men shared a stage this election cycle. And it comes as Rubio continues to lead in the polls.
RealClearPolitics, a polling aggregation website, has Rubio ahead by an average of 3.6 percentage points, while Bloomberg Politics poll released earlier Wednesday showed the Miami Republican leading by 10 points.
“Here’s the choice in this election, because elections are at their best when they’re about clear choices, and this election is a clear choice,” said Rubio. “I have real, concrete achievements I can point to, things I’ve been able to do for the state of Florida. He’s been there for four years, and no one’s even noticed. This is a clear … difference.”
More than 2 million ballots have already been cast ahead of the Nov. 8 general election, and millions more people are expected to vote during the early voting period.
“Florida deserves a senator that’s going to show up to work, somebody who is going to roll up their sleeves and get things done for Florida,” said Murphy. “There’s way too much at stake to have a missing senator. We have to do more.”
Both men tried to use the debate to draw clear differences from their opponent on a variety of issues, including Cuba and the Supreme Court.
The issue of health care has loomed large in recent days, after federal officials announced premiums are expected to go up significantly next year under the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare. Premiums for a mid-level plan are expected to increase an average of 25 percent across 39 states, according to a report from the Department of Health and Human Services. And about 1 in 5 consumers will only have plans from a single insurer to pick from.
Murphy has long said he supports the health care law, and defended that position Wednesday, while also saying there needs to be changes to make the program more affordable.
“There’s no question the Affordable Care Act was a huge step forward for our country. But the focus now has to be getting it right, working across the aisle to ensure we are fixing it, making sure we have more coverage for more people that’s affordable,” he said. “I believe we can do that, but you have to show up for work and you have to be working across the aisle.”
Murphy said Rubio has spent his time in office trying to undermine the healthcare law. Rubio opposed the Affordable Care Act, and has said he would repeal it.
But Rubio said he doesn’t want to go back to the “old system,” instead a proposing tax credits to allow Americans to buy health insurance and creating a high risk pool for people who have difficulty getting insurance.
“That is a much better approach than the system we have now, where you are forcing people on Obamacare because if they don’t they’ll get fined on their taxes,” he said.
The two men also squared off on the economy. While Florida has made gains in recent years, wages have generally been flat.
Murphy said the government should invest more in education and infrastructure to help boost wages. He also said the country needs to raise the minimum wage, saying lawmakers can “do more to help them out.”
“Anyone who is willing to work a full time job in this country shouldn’t be living in poverty,” said Murphy, who supports raising the minimum wage.
Rubio shot back, saying he understands what people are going through. He said the wage gap isn’t the only problem, the increase in the cost of living is also stretching working families thin.
“We have to become more competitive by rolling back taxes, especially on small businesses, and rolling back the regulatory burden,” said Rubio. “And we need to diversify our education choices. It doesn’t just have to be a four-year degree. We need more vocational training … we need more alternatives to traditional higher education.”
__The Associated Press contributed to this report.