After weeks of sniping at each other on the campaign trail, Marco Rubio and Patrick Murphy were able to do it in person Monday night in their first of two scheduled U.S. Senate debates before Election Day.
Over 57 heated minutes, Murphy, the Democratic challenger, repeatedly attacked Rubio for his absenteeism during his first term as U.S. senator and for his continued support of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Rubio, meanwhile, highlighted embellishments Murphy made to his academic and professional résumés and what he called Murphy’s “record of doing absolutely nothing” in his first two terms in Congress.
Murphy — lagging in every poll since June and still lacking name recognition among a significant portion of likely voters — needed to shine Monday in front of his largest audience to date. Except for a few rattled moments and repetitious answers, he generally held his own against the more battle-tested Rubio, as the two also covered a gamut of policy issues including immigration, foreign policy, gun control, climate change and healthcare.
The first 15 minutes of the debate, held at the University of Central Florida, focused on the presidential candidates and Rubio’s and Murphy’s endorsement of their party’s choices.
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Rubio spent several minutes on the defensive, having to explain why he is still backing Trump while simultaneously not defending him once. In the past 10 days, Trump has been accused by several women of sexual assault in the wake of a leaked “Access Hollywood” tape that showed Trump, 11 years ago, bragging about kissing and groping women without their consent. (Trump has called the assault allegations “false smears.”)
Rubio called Trump a “horrifying choice” and “not the most inspirational choice” but said Democrats had, in Hillary Clinton, “nominated someone who repeatedly violated federal law” and “who has a 30-year record of scandal and outrage.”
“It’s pretty clear Donald Trump is not my first choice or even my 10th choice to be the nominee of the Republican Party; 14 million voters in the Republican primaries chose differently,” Rubio said. “One of the reasons why I changed my mind and ran for re-election is because I know that no matter who wins this election, you are going to need people in the United States Senate willing to stand up to the next president.”
Murphy has unabashedly supported Clinton, including saying he trusts her “100 percent” despite the scandal with her private email server. When asked why Floridians should trust him when polls show most of them don’t trust Clinton, Murphy pivoted to a stock answer instead of directly answering and then shifted back to criticizing Trump. (“There’s a lot more you can say about Donald Trump.”)
Near the end of the debate, Rubio grew frustrated with Murphy’s repeated insinuations that Rubio doesn’t support women and he had ammo ready to volley in return. He referenced an old photo of the 33-year-old Murphy, which shows him with his arm around a woman, appearing to grab her breast. GOP activists have occasionally circulated the photo on Twitter for weeks.
“You’re the one that posted a picture four years ago on Facebook of you groping a woman. That’s inappropriate behavior,” Rubio said.
Murphy, visibly flustered, could only respond: “Let’s just talk about Donald Trump again, right?!”
After the debate, Murphy campaign spokeswoman Galia Slayen said in an email that the photo was of “a former girlfriend at dinner,” and she called the attack “an act of desperation” by Rubio.
Rubio also had Murphy pinned during several other points during the debate, getting in jabs about how Murphy started his political career four years ago and about how Murphy has described himself as a Certified Public Accountant and small business owner.
“You changed your name, changed your party and moved from South Beach to West Palm Beach to run for Congress. That’s not a flip-flop; that’s a metamorphosis,” Rubio said at one point. (“You’re the king of flip-flops,” Murphy retorted.)
In another tense moment, Rubio said, in reference to the environmental services company Murphy started as a subsidiary to his father’s billion-dollar construction company: “It’s not that hard to open a small business when your dad opens it for you.”
“I never tried to hide that … you’re making things up,” Murphy said.
“No, I’m not the one who makes things up,” Rubio quickly countered.
Murphy defended his résumé embellishments by insisting again that “all” of the attacks against him had been “debunked” by independent fact checkers. Some have, but not all, and Murphy remains carefully nuanced in how he describes his credentials.
Many of Murphy’s responses were pulled from his routine stump speech, including his oft-repeated line that Rubio “continues to put his own political ambition ahead of what’s best for Florida.”
He had one fresh retort, though, when moderators asked him about Republicans’ criticisms of his wealthy upbringing and their nickname for him, “Privileged Patrick.”
“I believe an attack on my dad is an attack on the American dream,” Murphy said, channeling a theme Rubio often uses when describing his own roots.
In another signature moment of the debate, Rubio quashed a weekslong attack by Murphy by finally offering a definitive answer to whether he’d commit to serving a full term in office, if re-elected.
“I’m going to serve six years in the Senate, God-willing, and I’m looking forward to it,” Rubio said. (When he was asked if he would run for president again, though, Rubio evaded and repeated that he’d serve six years in the Senate.)
Florida is no longer seen as one of the handful of pivotal states that could help decide control of the Senate next year, but that hasn’t diminish the high-profile nature of the contest.
As evidence of that, ABC News’ chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl moderated the one-hour debate. Questions were posed by Karl and a panel of Florida journalists: WFTV Channel 9 anchors Greg Warmoth and Nancy Alvarez and Marc Caputo of Politico. WFTV, in partnership with ABC News, Politico and Cox Media Group, sponsored the event.
Voters are already casting mail-in ballots for the November election. Early in-person voting begins Oct. 24.
The second — and potentially, final — debate between Murphy and Rubio will be Oct. 26 at Broward College, sponsored by Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association. The pair, as of last week, had agreed to a Univision debate also, but no date has been set for it.
Libertarian Paul Stanton and the four independent candidates also on the ballot — Tony Khoury, Steven Machat, Basil Dalack and Bruce Nathan — were not included in Monday’s debate and aren’t invited to the next one. Machat sued to force the debate sponsors to include them, but he lost in both state and federal court.
Clark reported from Tallahassee.