Florida Senate Debate Gives Crist, Meek Opportunity to Catch Rubio

VIDEO: Gov. Crist, Rep. Meek and Marco Rubio debate Social Security strategies.

Florida's senate race has been long and hot, lasting more than a year and featuring one of the first big victories for a Tea Party-backed candidate when conservative Marco Rubio drove moderate but largely popular Gov. Charlie Crist from the Republican party.

The debate tonight, moderated by ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, will pit Republican Marco Rubio and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek against Crist, who is running as an independent, and could play a decisive roll in who wins the race in November. The debate is cosponsored by ABC affiliates WFTV in Tampa and WFTS in Orlando, and Facebook.

Recent polls show Rubio, the child of Cuban émigrés, with a slight lead. But debates have a history of making the difference in Florida, according to Adam Smith, who is political director at the St. Petersburg Times.

"It's not over, but Charlie Crist and Kendrick Meek can't afford to wait much longer to shake up the race," said Smith, who pointed out that absentee voting is already under way and early voting begins Oct. 18.

"Last-minute surprises or attacks no longer suffice. The latest polls indicate Crist is within striking range, so the stakes really are pretty high for the debate," he said.

It would be last minute indeed for a race that has lasted longer than any other this cycle; The Florida race really began back in August 2009, before Tea Party mania took over the 2010 election cycle.

Republican Sen. Mel Martinez resigned and Crist, then a Republican, appointed his former staffer, George Lemieux to the seat while Crist planned his own run.

He was at the time a popular moderate governor who had been on Sen. John McCain's vice presidential short list in 2008 and then one of the few Republicans to back President Obama and Democrats' stimulus proposal in 2009.

But then public opinion, particularly among Republicans, turned against the stimulus and Crist's support was used by Rubio, the former State House speaker, to paint Crist as too moderate.

Moderate Crist Left Party Rather Than Lose Primary

By April, battered in the Republican primary and realizing he was more popular among general election voters, including independents, Crist had jumped out of the Republican party. Similar sentiments drove Arlen Specter from the Republican party in Pennsylvania. Highlighting the peril of being too moderate, Specter lost his bid to win the Democratic Senate primary earlier this year.

To win in November, Crist will need to draw support from Democrats as well as moderate Republicans and independents. It was always going to be a tall order, especially in such a large state where get-out-the-vote efforts and party structure play an important role on election day.

But Crist has been dogged, raising millions and running inventive ads that highlight his political independence. But that has also opened up to allegations of being a flip flopper, particularly on social issues like abortion and on economic issues.

"To a lot of people, Crist's non-partisan candidacy looks more like expediency than genuine independence," Smith said. "Crist is taking hits from the left and right, and he hasn't helped himself with some of his blatant flip-flops. People may say they crave independence, but partisan lines are still pretty deep and it's a testament to Crist's personal appeal that he's even in second place at this point."

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