Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio needed a chance to show he’s done something despite missing so much time at work, and he did so.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy needed a chance to show he’s more than just a rich, pretty face running for the Senate, and he did so.
And Florida voters needed a chance to hear about more than just Rubio’s commitment to Donald Trump or Murphy’s trust in Hillary Clinton, and they did so.
Monday night’s first U.S. Senate debate at the University of Central Florida, produced by Orlando TV station WFTV Channel 9 and broadcast statewide, made news as Rubio promised that — God willing — he intends to serve his six years in the Senate. And it raised eyebrows as Rubio essentially trashed Trump and Clinton as both bad, but said he’s sticking with Trump, while Murphy ignored Rubio’s characterization of Clinton as untrustworthy said he trusted her, as the two spent nearly 15 minutes talking about whose presidential candidate was worse.
But in the other 45 minutes, the rivals drew clear distinctions on where they stand on abortion, gun control, the Iran treaty, immigration reform, the Affordable Care Act, the Everglades, global warming, and Cuba. The only thing they agreed on was both expressed confidence the election would be fair, voting would be sound and trustworthy, and the results would be accepted.
“There was a much more in-depth discussion of policy than we’ve seen in any of these debates,” said University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus. “When it came to legislation and what was going on during their time in legislative positions, they really gave much more depth to it.”
And while Murphy tried hard and repeatedly to tie Rubio to Trump [perhaps his best prospect for knocking the senator back from his lead in the polls], it wasn’t until late in the debate that there was even a wobble to Rubio’s responses. Instead, much of the debate featured Rubio playing the experienced, conscientious politician who’s not afraid to take tough stands, even if those stands would chase away voters, while Murphy went on the attack.
Time and again Murphy accused Rubio of not showing up — of having the worst record in the Senate, and the worst for a Florida senator in 50 years — and pointed to his own 97 percent attendance record. But Rubio didn’t sound like someone who wasn’t getting anything done, ticking off bills he had sponsored into law or pushed, including Everglades restoration, human trafficking, Obamacare funding, and foreign policy. That was the charge he laid on Murphy, repeatedly challenging the two-term congressman from Palm Beach Gardens to name his top accomplishments, then belittling them.
“I think Rubio had a stronger performance, particularly for the first 40, 45 minutes. Murphy did come back stronger toward the end, particularly with the question about reproductive rights, women’s rights, overall. But I don’t know if he did enough in this first debate to change the dynamics,” said UCF political scientist Aubrey Jewett.
His Republican surrogates pointed to the same thing. Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and Bertica Cabrera Morris of Orlando both argued afterwards that Rubio talked about ample accomplishments, while Murphy, in Cabrera Morris’s words, “doesn’t have any.”
But voters who watched the debate will be able to see the distinctions on the issues, and vote based on those. Even Rubio acknowledged that one issue in particular — abortion — may have him in the minority of Floridians’ views.
“And it really really showed that Marco Rubio has a record of … turning his back on Floridians when it matters the most, turning his back on immigrants in Florida, turning his back on the LGBT community after the Pulse shooting, and turning his back on women,” said Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat running for Florida House Seat 49. “I think that came through loud and clear.”
The turn in Murphy’s performance came after Rubio tried to walk a fine line between saying he has great respect for a woman’s right to control her body, but he favors the rights of children to be born, even in cases of Zika infections.
“Some of these issues are very difficult issues. But I do so with the utmost respect for others who have a different point of view,” Rubio said.
And after Rubio complained Murphy and Clinton have extreme positions on abortion — claiming they support it in any case, but get a pass in the media for such an extreme position — and then accused Murphy of posting a picture on Facebook of himself groping a woman, Murphy brought home the point he wanted: charging that Rubio has shown no support for women’s rights.
“Let’s just talk about Donald Trump again, right? Think about who my opponent, Marco Rubio, has endorsed to be our next president: bragging about sexually assaulting women?” Murphy said. “I don’t need to hear a lecture from you on women’s rights. You do not support a women’s right to chose. When asked about equal pay for women, your quote was that it is a waste of time.”
Another of Murphy’s biggest hopes — one he brought up in his opening remarks — was defused when Rubio stated he intended to serve out his full term in the U.S. Senate, if re-elected. The widely held assumption suggests he would seek another presidential run in 2020, and until now he has dodged committing to serving a full term.
“I’m going to serve in the Senate for the next six years, God willing,” Rubio said. “I am going to be senator for the next six years on behalf of the state of Florida. You can’t be senator and president at the same time.”
But that didn’t convince everyone.
“It sounded to me when he added ‘God willing,’ he was giving himself a little bit of an out there, just in case,” said retired Orlando Police Chief Val Demings, a Democrat running for Florida’s 10th Congressional District.