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."
Rubio, meanwhile, was one of the first Tea Party favorites, along with Pat Toomey, the Republican running for Senate in Pennsylvania. Crist has used Rubio's conservative views, particularly that Congress should consider raising the retirement age for Social Security, to try to turn off Florida's retirement population.
Crist has a TV ad accusing Rubio of wanting to raise the retirement age and gut social security.
"Work longer, get by on less, that's the Marco Rubio retirement plan," according to the narrator in Crist's ad. Watch it here.
Compelling Personal Story, Conservative Politics Help Rubio
In addition to hitting Crist as a political opportunist, Rubio has run on his biography, arguing that only in America can the child of refugees from Cuba rise to be a successful lawyer. And it's the American system of free enterprise, according to Rubio, that makes his rise possible.
Rubio's most recent TV ad makes oblique mention of Crist and warns that Washington won't improve "if we keep electing politicians who will say or do anything just to hold office."
But he also has personal financial problems that Democrats and Crist have tried to say make him hypocritical in areas of national fiscal responsibility.
In order to have a chance, according to Smith, Crist, who is closer in polls to Rubio, has to convince Democrats not to vote for Rep. Kendrick Meek, according to Smith.
Democrats Back Meek Even as Crist Pursues Democratic Votes
Meek has attacked Crist in recent TV ads, one of which strings together clips from when Crist was a Republican and praised people like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
"I'm a pro-life, pro-gun, anti-tax Republican," Crist says at one point in the ad. Watch it here.
Even so, it might be to Democrats benefit in some ways to back Crist. He is perceived as having a better chance to beat Rubio and Democrats could convince him to join their caucus even if he remains technically independent. With the balance of power in Washington in play, that vote could be key.
"Kendrick Meek is our candidate for the United States Senate in Florida," Sen. Bob Menendez, who chairs Democratic Senators' campaign arm, said at an appearance in Washington this week. "And as this race in the next 30-some-odd days, I think will give Kendrick an opportunity to rise significantly in the polls.
"Governor Crist is not doing that well in the polls, and I think when people are looking for a real choice, they will increasingly turn to Kendrick," he said. "So I'm not expecting Gov. Crist coming, I'm expecting Kendrick Meek to come, and he will caucus with the Democrats."
Only Two Independents Currently in Congress
There are currently two independents in Congress, but both, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, side with Democrats in most procedural votes.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska lost the Republican primary there to attorney and Tea Party favority Joe Miller. She is mounting a write-in campaign, but has said she would still caucus with Republicans if reelected.
Who Crist would caucus with if he wins has the been a subject of great speculation. He has not said who he would caucus with, but has said he would instead look out for the best interests of the people of Florida. That might sound good to voters, but it would make his vote a hot commodity in the Senate, where the minority party can bring business to a standstill with 41 votes on procedural matters.
But far from abandoning Meek, Democratic heavyweights like former President Bill Clinton have campaigned for him. President Obama held a fundraiser for Meek.
At the end of the day, Meek and Crist are both trying to appeal to the same bloc of voters in order to compete with Rubio. One will have to pull away to make this a real race. And the debate today could provide their last best opportunity.