It's rare for a Senate primary to draw national attention, but the race for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in Florida has garnered widespread notice as a fight for the heart and soul of the GOP.
That debate, pitting Gov. Charlie Crist, a champion of President Obama's economic stimulus package, against former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, a favorite of Tea Party activists, played itself out today on Sunday morning television.
Appearing on "Fox News Sunday," Crist and Rubio clashed on the economic stimulus, Social Security, taxes and illegal immigration. But the overarching theme pushed by both candidates was the question of trust.
Rubio charged that Republicans cannot trust Crist to stand up to Obama's agenda in Washington because the governor embraced the president's economic stimulus package shortly after the president took office.
"This election is about trust," Rubio said. "Who do you trust to go to Washington and stand up to Barack Obama and offer a clear alternative?"
Crist stood by his support for the stimulus, arguing that it saved 87,000 jobs in Florida including the jobs of 20,000 teachers. He then countered by repeatedly alleging that Rubio has a record of enriching himself rather than the people he serves.
"The choice is crystal clear in this race," Crist said. "I view public service as a calling ... Speaker Rubio views public service as a way to enhance his personal enrichment, and that's just wrong."
In particular, Crist alleged that Rubio set up a "$600,000 slush fund," which was supposed to be used for political purposes but which instead was used to "fix his minivan, get haircuts, employ family members, things of this nature that are not what a political committee is supposed to do."
Rubio acknowledged that there were some occasions in which he used political funds on personal expenses. He maintained, however, that "all this money's been accounted for."
Crist did not accept Rubio's contention that he has accounted for all the funds, and he suggested that Rubio has not released his tax returns because of accounting irregularities.
"There are $34,000 in expenses from that $600,000 slush fund that have not been accounted for," Crist said. "We don't know where the money went. We don't know what happened to it. And the speaker won't tell us."
Rather than dwell on the attacks on his finances, Rubio made an effort to cast the primary as a fight for the ideological direction of the country.
"You just don't get it," Rubio said. "This campaign is not about you and it's not about me. It's about the people watching this program, [people] that are watching their country being fundamentally redefined by this administration and this Congress."
One of the starkest contrasts between the candidates came on the issue of Social Security.
Rubio said that the nation's retirement program "will not survive" in its current form. He said people 55 and older should be spared from any changes but argued that lower benefits and a higher retirement age should be on the table for younger Americans such as himself. Rubio turns 39 in May.
Crist said raising the retirement age "flies in the face of many of my fellow Floridians."