Florida’s low-key U.S. Senate campaign got an hour of drama Wednesday as Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Connie Mack IV sparred in an attack-filled televised debate that will serve as the only face-to-face match-up of the campaign.
Within minutes of opening the debate, the lines of attack emerged as Mack introduced himself as “a proud, mainstream conservative” and immediately attacked Nelson for voting to “gut our military,” cut Medicare and vote to raise taxes 150 times.
“I’ve got a simple litmus test,’’ said Mack, the Cape Coral Republican. “If you voted for higher taxes 150 times, it’s time for you to go.”
Nelson, 70, who is seeking his third term, responded that “everything the congressman’s just said, is not true.’’ It was a line he repeated often during the exchange.
He accused Mack, 45, of partisan, ideological attacks that he described as “the problem with politics today” and said he has spent his career reaching “across the partisan divide” to “build bi-partisan consensus.”
The fast-paced debate covered all the hot spots as a panel of journalists, including the Miami Herald’s Toluse Olorunnipa, asked the candidates about the budget, Medicare, debt, domestic violence, national security, immigration and the Cuban embargo.
With each question, both Mack and Nelson came prepared with reprisals of the same attacks they have lobbed at each other in television ads for months:
Nelson accused Mack of missing votes and violating homestead tax laws.
Mack accused Nelson of cutting Medicare, taking advantage of a farm tax loophole, gutting the military and supporting the federal Affordable Care Act.
“Is that the only line you’ve memorized?’’ Nelson chided at one point, and frequently noted that many of Mack’s claims have been countered by fact-checkers.
Mack repeatedly portrayed Nelson as trying to have it both ways — following the dictates of President Barack Obama in Washington but claiming to be a moderate in Florida.
“You say one thing to the people of the state of Florida, but you do something else in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
The debate, sponsored by Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association, was held at Nova Southeastern University and broadcast live in most major television markets throughout the state, including WTVJ-NBC6 in South Florida.
The candidates were asked what specific programs they would cut from the budget. Mack answered that Nelson was a member of the Senate Budget Committee that has failed to pass a budget.
When pressed to answer, Mack said: “Go to my website,’’ and listed Amtrak and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).
Nelson said he would cut tax loopholes and suggested candidates for cuts might be the $40 billion tax credit to the oil industry and the $11.5 billion tax deduction given to BP for cleaning up the oil spill.
Mack accused Nelson of casting the deciding vote on the Affordable Care Act and therefore cutting Medicare by $716 billion, claims ruled false and mostly false, respectively, by PolitiFact Florida.
Nelson countered that the $716 billion “was in fact savings that extended the life of Medicare for eight years” and accused Mack of supporting the House budget plan “to replace it with a voucher,’’ a claim Mack disputes.