SUN CITY CENTER, Fla. - Stumping on behalf of Mitt Romney for the first time in Florida today, former presidential candidate and Arizona Sen. John McCain pressed Florida voters to consider a candidate's record, not just debate performances, when choosing whom they will vote for in the Florida primary next week.
It was a pointed reference to Newt Gingrich, who has benefited from strong debate performances in recent weeks.
"I think debate performances are important," McCain told a crowd of more than 150 people at a town hall-style meeting at the Chamber of Commerce here. "I think that they're helpful in talking to the American people, but I'm not sure that debates should be the only criteria.
"I think we should look at people's records. I think we should look at what they offer the American people. I think debates are helpful, don't get me wrong, but I also think that we should look at their records."
McCain characterized the debates as having taken on a tone that is "not healthy" and suggested they have "deteriorated into name calling."
The Republican senator continued to criticize Gingrich's penchant for earmarks while he served as speaker of the House.
"Under Speaker Gingrich, when I was in the House and the Senate, earmarks exploded," McCain said. "It led to scandal. It led to [convicted lobbyist Jack] Abramoff and it does because it's corruption.
"I took the floor in 1998 … and criticized and railed against this bill that they had passed, this appropriations bill out of the House of Representatives, and the speaker's response at that time was that we were perfectionists. Well, I believe in being a perfectionist where corruption is concerned."
McCain, who endorsed Romney in early January, squeezed out a win over Romney in the Florida primary in 2008 with 36 percent of the vote, compared with 31 percent received by the former Massachusetts governor and eventually became the Republican nominee.
"I think you know we had a very spirited primary in 2008 and it should've been. Primaries are spirited and they're not bean bag," McCain said. "But I can tell you that Mitt Romney and I share the same values, the same principles, the same emphasis on our national security and fiscal discipline, and we may have had a difference or two and we may still have a difference or two but the fact is also I'd like to point out that after I was able to secure the nomination, no one worked harder on my behalf than Mitt Romney."
During a question-and-answer session, a younger voter voiced his desire to opt out of Social Security and asked whether the federal government would give him that option in the future.
"No, because it's a scheme, obviously, that you are not paying for your present retirement. You are paying for present retirees," McCain said as a few women in the crowd simultaneously called it a "Ponzi scheme." "But what I think we should do is allow you to put some of that Social Security that you're paying into a lockbox, as we call it, so it will be there as you retire."
McCain joked comfortably with the crowd throughout his speech. As he defended Romney's tenure as governor of Massachusetts, McCain accidentally knocked one of the microphones off the podium.
"Too bad for Channel 9. That's it," McCain said as the crowd, many of whom were holding signs that read "Don't Trust the Liberal Media," laughed and applauded. "Channel 9's a bunch of liberals anyways."
Drumming up support for Romney, McCain urged the audience to hit the voting booths Tuesday, even joking with a man in the front row wearing an "I voted" button that he should give up his chair for an undecided voter.
"I noticed that somebody already has a button on that says, 'I voted.' Would you mind if someone who hasn't voted takes your seat?" McCain joked.