State Politics

How many times will Marco Rubio and Patrick Murphy debate? It’s debatable

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, left, and U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, left, and U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy. AP/Palm Beach Post

Wasting no time after their blowout primary victories, Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Patrick Murphy were quick to engage in a chippy debate over debating in their first hours back on the campaign trail.

Rubio kicked it off by sending a letter to Murphy just after sunrise Wednesday challenging the congressman from Palm Beach to six media-sponsored Senate debates.

“Despite our differences, I hope we can both agree that voters deserve to know where we stand on the important issues of our time,” Rubio wrote.

Murphy responded hours later by telling reporters at a news conference in West Palm Beach that he’s agreed to one debate, but added he will accept Rubio’s challenge of six, including one hosted by a Spanish-language outlet, when Rubio commits to a full six-year term in the Senate. It’s a reference to Rubio refusing to rule out running for president in 2020 if he wins a second term.

“I’m going to take his challenge seriously,” Murphy said. “We’ve already agreed to one debate, I’m looking forward to that and our teams are going to continue, you know, talking to hash out the details there. There are going to be multiple debates.”

The one certain debate is Oct. 26 at Broward College’s Central Campus in Davie.

Declaring their willingness to square off at all is a change from the primary season when neither agreed to debate their underdog opposition.

Feeling confident about taking on Murphy in any format, Rubio’s camp was quick to accuse Murphy of “ducking debates already.” While running for president, Rubio grew battle-tested after 12 crowded debates, mostly earning high marks. Murphy, meanwhile, has had limited debate time dating back to his first run for Congress in 2012 when he squared off against incumbent Rep. Allen West, a Republican.

“What is he so scared of?” Rubio campaign manager Clint Reed said in a statement.

Murphy called Rubio’s debate letter a “campaign stunt.” But it succeeded in distracting from Murphy’s attempt on Wednesday to open up a line of attack on Rubio that accuses him of dropping the ball in serving constituents so he could run for president. In West Palm Beach, Murphy highlighted Tim Riney, a Florida resident and the father of a soldier severely injured in a military training exercise. Riney joined Murphy in criticizing Rubio for his response to his son’s needs and recent TV ads highlighting the Republican’s support from veterans.

Riney’s son, Timothy Riney Jr., went to a private hospital to recover and his family dealt with the Warrior Transition Unit, a military body set up to provide support for injured and wounded soldiers and their families.

When Riney had issues with the WTU, he called Rubio. He wasn’t satisfied with the response.

“It took Sen. Rubio four to five months to get back to me,” Riney said. “In that time, we were put through hell.”

Rubio’s official Senate office disputed that timeline, saying they responded to Riney within two days and were in frequent contact with him.

“When we last communicated with Mr. Riney in October 2015, he indicated that no further action was needed from our office at the time,” said Matt Wolking, a spokesman for Rubio. “We remain committed to working with him to ensure his son receives the care he deserves.”

Riney, who criticized Rubio for running for president instead of helping constituents like him, said he communicated with Rubio’s Orlando office. He also said he called Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, but didn’t hear back from his office, either.

Rubio’s campaign blasted Murphy for the news conference.

“Patrick Murphy’s statements today were an outright lie and he should be ashamed for trying to score cheap political points off a family’s pain and suffering,” Rubio campaign spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas said. “Once again Murphy showed he will say or do anything for political gain.”