Neither Sen. Marco Rubio nor Rep. Patrick Murphy debated primary opponents. So it stood to reason their debate Monday night would be one to watch.
And indeed it was.
For an hour in Orlando at the University of Central Florida, the Republican incumbent and his Democratic challenger traded shots on issue after issue, finally bringing to life the cyberspace sniping between their operatives and partisans.
Murphy won the coin flip, and got the opening statement.
After reviewing his accomplishments thus far in Congress, including “being ranked as one of the most independent members in Congress,” Murphy compared himself to Rubio, who “still hasn’t committed to a full six-year term” in the Senate, and “doubled down” on his endorsement of Donald Trump, in what would be the first of many attempts by Murphy to assert a Rubio/Trump axis.
Murphy went low. Rubio stayed high … at least, for most of his introductory statement, until he said that Murphy, “after four years, does not have a single achievement he can point to.”
The introductions over, the questions began. And overshadowing the Senate debate at almost every turn: the polarizing figures running for President from the major parties.
The first was for Murphy on trusting Hillary Clinton in light of her email scandal.
Murphy said that Clinton apologized, “which is more than you can say for Donald Trump.”
Through most of his answer, Murphy continued to attack Donald Trump.
“I don’t understand how Sen. Rubio can look himself in the mirror,” Murphy said.
Rubio’s reply asserted his independence, as he said: “I don’t trust either one of them.”
Murphy continued to hit Rubio on Trump, pointing out Trump’s violation of the Cuba embargo, asking Rubio where his “courage” is in not standing up to Trump.
Rubio pointed out that “there’s only one person on the stage who made millions of dollars in partnership with Donald Trump, and that’s you.”
The moderators wouldn’t let Rubio off the hook, though, bringing up the barrage of sexual assault claims against Trump, and asking how he would explain that to children.
“If there are any kids in America who understand what a horrifying choice America has in this election cycle, it’s mine,” Rubio said, pointing out the “two deeply flawed candidates” running for President.
“The problem is,” said Rubio, the other party nominated someone who “lied,” “someone with a 30-year record of scandal and outrage.”
When asked if there was anything Trump could say or do that would compel Rubio not to back Trump for president, Rubio pointed out that Trump wasn’t his “first choice or even [his] 10th choice” for president.
However, unlike Murphy, Rubio said he’s willing to call out his party’s nominee.
Murphy chimed in, calling Trump a “serial abuser,” and saying “there are people who have the courage to stand up and stay what’s best.”
Murphy continued to hit Rubio on Trump, including trusting him with the nuclear codes, given “he wants to be best pals with Vladimir Putin.”
The two candidates debated about which presidential nominee was least trustworthy with the nuclear codes.
Rubio pointed out that he has “deep reservations” about Trump, but he flat out doesn’t trust Clinton on foreign policy in light of such lowlights as the “Russia reset” and the Iran deal.
The concept of a gun ban popped up next, framed against the harsh optics of the Pulse massacre in Orlando earlier in the year.
Murphy opined that “we must close the terrorist gun loophole,” while expanding background checks and mental health treatment.
In contrast, Murphy accused Rubio of being a tool of the NRA, who “accepted millions of dollars from the gun lobby.”
Rubio “is too concerned with his next election,” Murphy said, and too “worried about his special interest donors.”
Rubio responded, saying the Pulse attack was by an avowed “jihadist,” and that the NRA has not come out in support of Rubio’s proposed gun legislation.
“The law that I wrote has a chance of passing,” Rubio said, “which is a fundamental difference between Murphy and I.”
The law, added Rubio, has due process protections, to protect the rights of people investigated by the feds, then cleared.
The Pulse discussion continued.
Rubio noted that his office embedded two staffers in the victims’ aid center for over a month, as an example of his commitment to helping the victims.
Then the senator pivoted toward immigration, saying it was an issue he understood personally, being a child of immigrants and a resident of a community of immigrants.
“There’s only one way forward on immigration,” said Rubio, and that includes getting illegal immigration under control and closing loopholes.
Once these issues are solved, Rubio asserted the American people would support a “reasonable” compromise.
Murphy pounced, pointing out that Rubio, once a member of the Gang of Eight, has now “doubled down” on his endorsement of Trump.
Rubio noted that Murphy “only started talking about [immigration] like four years ago.”
Then he noted that Murphy, in 2011, changed his name and moved to run for office — as an example of flip-flopping.
Obamacare came up next, with Murphy compelled to defend it.
“It’s not perfect,” said Murphy, saying he favored “moderate reforms” in the program, such as expanding Medicaid.
“You’ve got to be willing to work across the aisle, to find common ground,” Murphy said.
Rubio fired back: “To say Obamacare has some problems is equivalent to saying the Titanic has some problems.”
Rubio added that he had offered a “concrete, specific plan” to replace Obamacare, including employer subsidies or a tax credit to allow those who work outside those structures to buy their own health care.
Rubio’s spotty attendance and voting record in the Senate came up.
Rubio attributed that to the pressures of a “credible campaign for the presidency,” defending the decision in a belief that the country will continue to decline if it stays on the current road it’s on.
The senator went on to itemize his legislative achievements, which he contrasted to Murphy’s lack of a “single law that he has sponsored” being “signed into law by a president of his own party.”
Murphy noted Rubio signed on to two Murphy bills, before challenging Rubio to pledge to spend six years in the Senate.
Rubio seemed to say yes.
“I’m going to serve in the Senate for the next six years,” Rubio said. “You can’t be a senator and a president at the same time.”
Murphy’s claims of being a small-business owner and a CPA came under scrutiny next.
Murphy noted that “Politifact has debunked these allegations.”
Murphy went on to say he was a CPA, glossing over the requested clarification as to whether or not he’s a Florida CPA.
Rubio noted that the allegations against Murphy were not his attacks, but those of Jim DeFede, before going on the attack against Murphy.
“Why does someone make things up about their record? Because they don’t have anything real to talk about … we are 40 minutes into this debate,” Rubio said, and Murphy hadn’t been able to point out a signature accomplishment of his.
Discussion continued on the intricacies of being a Florida CPA, with Rubio noting that “it’s not that hard to open up a small business” when Murphy’s dad fronts him the money.
Climate change and rising sea levels came up next, with Rubio in the eye of the storm.
Rubio noted that this week’s flooding in Miami Beach was a function of a King Tide, and that Rubio advocates “mitigation.”
“As a policymaker, you have to show me that the laws we pass,” said Rubio, will actually solve the problems we’re facing.
Rubio added that he’s for an “all of the above” energy policy, including natural gas and “clean coal” as part of a diversified portfolio of energy sources.
Murphy countered, telling Rubio to “look out your window,” pointing out environmental issues ranging from floods to algae blooms … which Rubio said, “have nothing to do with rising sea levels.”
“You’re neither a scientist or a CPA,” Rubio quipped.
“Privileged Patrick” came up next.
Murphy noted his dad’s working class roots, and how his “first job was as a day laborer.”
“I never did forget the value of hard work, something that [Rubio] did forget,” Murphy said, framing his populism against Rubio, a putative puppet of the Koch Brothers.
Rubio then itemized some of his achievements, including reforming school curriculum in the state when he was House Speaker.
Zika and abortions came next, with Marc Caputo pointing out Rubio seemed to take contradictory positions on whether pregnant women with Zika should be able to have abortions.
Rubio noted that abortion is a “difficult issue” dealing with “two competing rights” — choice versus “the right of an unborn child to live.”
“For me, this is not an issue of politics … I believe that all human life is worthy of the protection of our laws,” Rubio said, painting his position as one of conviction over expedience, before saying that Murphy and Clinton support partial-birth and late-term abortions.
Murphy took the center square, painting Rubio as an extremist who doesn’t even support abortion in the case of rape or incest.
Rubio countered with a description of Murphy posting a picture of himself on Facebook years ago “groping a woman.”
It led Murphy back to Donald Trump and making the argument that Rubio is “not a friend of women,” before the two bantered about who was least for equal pay for women.
The potentially “rigged” election came up next, framed in Trumpian allegations of potential massive voting fraud.
Rubio said that the election “absolutely” is not being rigged.
“I promise you there is not a 67-county conspiracy to rig the election,” Rubio said, noting that the governor is Republican also.
Murphy got one more lick in on the “unhinged” Trump, noting that it is “shameful” that Rubio is still standing by Trump’s side.
Cuba — and the Obama policy toward it — was up next.
Murphy does “support the president’s attempt to normalize relations with Cuba,” saying “we’ve had over 50 years of a failed policy.”
Rubio is “against one-sided changes to the policy to Cuba,” noting that Cuba has felt emboldened to ask the Russians to “open up a military base 90 miles” from American soil.