Nelson, Mack spar in testy Senate debate

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.

When asked what the candidates would do to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” that will force automatic budget cuts at the end of the year if a compromise for the debt ceiling is not found, neither offered specifics.

Nelson, who voted with the majority in the Senate to approve the so-called sequestration that could trigger $500 million in budget cuts to the military, said the threatened cut “was never intended to happen.”

Mack said he didn’t vote for the bill because “it was a dumb idea.”

Mack repeatedly accused Nelson of voting for tax increases 150 times, but his claim inflates the number of votes by counting non-binding resolutions, duplicative votes on the same bill and fails to account for Nelson’s support of tax cuts.

The debate was the last time the two candidates are scheduled to be together in what has been one of the most low-key Senate races in recent Florida history.

The candidates differed on immigration as well. Nelson said he would support a pathway for citizenship for illegal immigrants as long as it is part of comprehensive immigration reform and requires illegal immigrants to “have a clean record and learn English.’’

Mack said he does not support amnesty but supports giving legal immigrants access “to the American Dream.”

On one issue close to Florida neither candidate dared disagree: the Cuban embargo. Neither candidate said they would support lifting it, although Nelson said he wants to ensure access to family members.

“Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl are brutal people,’’ Mack said. “Lifting the embargo – the only thing it would do would pad the pockets of the Castro brothers.”

The candidates have largely waged the campaign on television, with Nelson raising money early and running negative ads featuring Mack’s personal financial woes, his divorce, his hard-partying youth and attendance record in Congress.

Mack has relied on third parties to attack Nelson, primarily accusing him of voting for the so-called Obamacare and for his farm tax breaks.

The race was initially viewed as a possible pick up for Republicans in their attempt to shift the partisan balance in the U.S. Senate, but Mack’s poor standing in the polls and Nelson’s steady lead have shifted national attention away from Florida.

Mack and his campaign are undeterred. “There are three weeks left of the campaign; we’re perfectly positioned,’’ said Connie Mack III, the former U.S. senator and father of the candidate.