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State of the Union

Florida Senate Debate

Aired October 24, 2010 - 09:00   ET


CANDY CROWLEY, HOST: From the University of South Florida in Tampa, this is a special edition of "State of the Union." I'm Candy Crowley and this is the Florida U.S. Senate debate.

The three men vying to win that seat are with me here today. Democratic Congressman Kendrick Meek was first elected to Congress in 2002. Republican Marco Rubio served in the Florida House of Representatives for eight years, rising to the position of speaker of the House. And Governor Charlie Crist was elected in 2006. He quit his bid to become the Republican nominee, now running as an independent.

I'm also joined by Adam Smith, political editor for the St. Petersburg Times.

Now, the candidates have agreed to keep their answers short, so we can cover a lot of ground, one-minute answers with 30-second rebuttals.

But first, before we begin, a word about Florida, a state in deep trouble. Unemployment, 11.9 percent, fourth highest in the country. Foreclosure rate, second highest in the country. Health insurance, almost 21 percent of Floridians don't have it.

I want to begin, Governor Crist, with you, and ask you -- you came to office in 2007. The unemployment rate was a little over 3 percent. It is now about 12 percent. You were 10th in the nation for home foreclosures. You're now second. What is the responsibility in your administration for these numbers?

CRIST: Well, our responsibility is to do everything we possibly can to make the situation as better as possible. It's difficult. I think we all understand and appreciate, this is a global economic situation that we're all challenged by and dealing with, and it's no different here in Florida. What we--

CROWLEY: Governor, is there some responsibility for how we got here? How Florida got here? Because you're higher in almost all of these numbers. Florida is higher. So do you think there's something that in your administration you should have done earlier? Do you think there is any fault within your administration for these numbers getting higher?

CRIST: Well, I think there's plenty of blame to go around, but I think the reality is that all of us need to pull together to try to do what's right to make it as best we possibly can going forward.

It is one of the reasons I was with the president when it came to the Recovery Act and when he came down to Ft. Myers. I had to be practical, I had to be pragmatic. I couldn't be extreme, I couldn't be ideological. I had to be prudent for the people of Florida.

We utilized those moneys in order to stem the tide in losing jobs in the Sunshine State. 20,000 educators today would be out a job if we hadn't utilized the Recovery Act moneys. Another 60,000 of my fellow Floridians would be out of work today without the opportunity to be able to utilize those moneys in a responsible way. We also--

CROWLEY: But just to sort of button this up because we want to move on. But you are confident that you did as much as you could as governor to try to stem this tide?

CRIST: Always. Always try to do everything as possible, as much as you can, to work hard for the people, lower their taxes, lower the burden of government on their back, try to promote entrepreneurship and free enterprise.

SMITH: I should mention that our website,, is going to be fact-checking this debate, so please try not to lie to us.


SMITH: Mr. Meek, you supported the stimulus, and unemployment has just continued to climb. If there were a second stimulus package, would you support that?

MEEK: Well, the stimulus that would provide tax cuts for small businesses. One jobs bill is stuck in the Senate right now because of the gridlock that's there could very well help Florida's economy. I think it's very important to know that the stimulus was set to be the floor, not necessarily the silver bullet to job recovery.

And I think it's done quite a bit in the state of Florida. It started us off on this real initiative to have high-speed rail not only here in Tampa but going all the way to Orlando. That's going to be the beginning of creating new jobs. Mr. Rubio is against that rail expansion, and he feels that it can go away -- it could go away under -- if he becomes the next senator.

SMITH: Do you stand by the performance of the president's economic team?

MEEK: Well, I can tell you, obviously, especially standing here in Florida, it needs to be better. But, you know, 700,000 jobs were lost when they came into office. Now it's been a private sector plus- up since then, in the last seven months.

I think it's very, very important to think of looking at the challenges that the administration has faced. Would John McCain, would he -- would he -- you know, would he have done a better job? No one can say that. But we're dealing with the cards that we're dealt right now, and I think it's very, very important that we fight our way out of this economic slowdown.

CROWLEY: Just to make clear before I move on, yes or no, does that mean you think the president ought to change the members of his economic team?

MEEK: Well, there's always people that are coming on and off of the economic team. I trust the president's judgment when it comes down to picking his own economic team.

CROWLEY: Mr. Rubio, you have talked a lot about limiting government spending. But these numbers in Florida are horrific. Among them, almost 20 percent of black males in this state are unemployed. Can you wait for the economy to grow itself better in order to help some of these people who are really in dire circumstances?

RUBIO: Well, actually, Candy, your question goes to the core of how we believe the economy grows. And I don't believe the economy grows because of government spending. I don't think politicians create permanent--

CROWLEY: It doesn't grow fast enough.

RUBIO: Well, here's the point. The economy grows because people have the confidence to start a business or expand an existing business. That's what helps your economy grow. And what you need is a government that pursues policies that encourage people to do that.

And that's not what we have today. We have an extreme amount of uncertainty in the economic marketplace for a lot of different reasons. Number one, there's a threat of tax increases, which is what allowing the current tax code to expire is. It is a tax increase. You add to that kind of the regulatory environment in America today that's becoming increasingly onerous on small businesses, on entrepreneurs. You have the debt problem, which scares people about investing in the American economy because they believe this debt will be paid back through higher taxes. And you add on top of all of that a health care bill that's injected tremendous uncertainty on the backs of the job creators.

CROWLEY: But I guess the question here is that when, in fact, you have such dire circumstances, growing the economy takes a while.

RUBIO: Sure.

CROWLEY: Don't you think? But if you have 20 percent of black males unemployed, if you have 12 percent of the state unemployed, don't they need immediate help? I understand that philosophically, you differ with Democrats on how to do this.

RUBIO: But Candy, the point is -- yes, but the point is, the immediate help they offered was $800 billion of borrowed money that was going to be spent through government--

CROWLEY: That's what they did. I'm sort of asking--

RUBIO: But it's failed. I mean-- CROWLEY: OK.

RUBIO: The alternative to getting people employment is to create an environment where the private sector will grow. And the private sector is in the business of growing. The natural state of the economy is to grow, it's not to shrink. The natural state of the economy is to grow, and if it's not growing, it's because something is keeping it from growing. And in America, if you ask the job creators, which are the people I'm talking to -- not professors at universities, the job creators, the people who start businesses or expand existing businesses. They will tell you that the reason why they're not hiring people next year is because they're afraid of what next year's going to mean in term of taxes, regulation, and the health care bill.

CROWLEY: Go ahead.

CRIST: I think both views are correct, and maybe I'm the only one on this stage that can say this today. We need to have tax cuts. We need to rein in government. We need to rein in government spending. We've done it here in Florida. As governor, I've reduced spending by $7.4 billion and signed into law the largest tax cut in the history of our state.

But I also am practical enough to appreciate that we're in a global economic meltdown. You know, people needed help. A lot were on unemployment compensation. We had to extend it so that those families could continue to have the opportunity to serve their families a meal.

In addition to that, people don't talk about it -- in the Recovery Act, almost $300 billion of it were tax cuts. That gets forgotten somehow. Mr. Rubio doesn't talk about that. But it's important to remember, that's what a part of this plan was. Among them, $8,000 for first-time home buyers, tax credit. $2,500 tax credit. We're at a university here today, University of South Florida. It's so that those students would be able to go to school and continue their education and gain gainful employment when they get out.

SMITH: Mr. Meek, you're a leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, which publicly asked Barack Obama to do more to help with the economic plight of African Americans. Given that nearly 20 percent unemployment rate among black men, has the president done enough?

MEEK: Well, we're doing all we can, but I can tell you what Mr. Rubio is talking about is not a solution, it's ideology. I think it's very important to understand that folks have to get to jobs. We have to create jobs. We have to also set an environment that people will be able to receive these blue-collar jobs. I'm talking about the middle class here. Mr. Rubio and Mr. Crist start to stutter when we start talking about tax cuts for the super-wealthy. It's OK to borrow that money for it to happen. We're talking about a present tax code. And so it's not a new idea, it's just saying keep doing the same thing and expecting different results.

I think it's important that we save money, we bring the deficit down, but we don't borrow $700 billion to give tax cuts to the small businesses -- to these wealthy (ph) businesses (ph).

SMITH: He mentioned before that you're going to oppose funding the high-speed rail. Is that true?

RUBIO: No. First of all, the high-speed rail program is a rail program. There's nothing wrong with the train system. And if it has merit, it should be pursued. What I'm opposed to is borrowing money to pay for it. I think we have a huge $13.5 trillion debt in this country, and I don't think we can continue to borrow money on top of that.

But let me clarify something the congressman has just said. He talks about this tax code as if somehow tax cuts are the reason why America is in economic trouble. The reason why America is in economic trouble is not because people aren't paying enough in taxes. It's because the economy is not growing because of government policies. Congressman, it's not ideology. It's reality. What creates jobs in America -- I wish politicians could create jobs, because it's easier to pass a bill than it is to start a business.

But what it takes to grow the economy are people willing to go out and start a new business or grow an existing business, and that's not going to happen as long as the people in charge believe that behind every problem that America faces, there's some government spending program or some tax increase that's going to solve it.

CROWLEY: Mr. Meek, I'm going to let you get in on this, but I need to take a quick break. And we'll come back and have you respond to that.

In fact, we had mentioned tax cuts. We're going to talk about that, a little more about the economy, deficit and minimum wage. We'll be right back.


CROWLEY: From Tampa, this is a special STATE OF THE UNION. The Florida Senate debate.

Mr. Meek, we left promising you some time here. Basically, the thought was that it seems that the unemployment here has really hit a crisis level and 12 percent overall in the state. And you and Mr. Rubio were discussing how that would...

MEEK: Well, it's important that we grow this economy. Obviously Florida has to diversify. But it's the very reason why we should not federalize Marco Rubio. He is thinking of ideology that would put the middle class in the hole forever. What he's not telling you about these tax cuts that he's talking about, that only really 3 to 4 percent are really the job producers within that tax cut that he's talking about.

The rest of it is borrowed money. Guess what? Middle-class families throughout America have to pay $6,000 per year to pay for the tax cut that he's talking about. That's before the finance charge from China, Japan, or India. I think it's important that we look at leveling with the people of this state, not just the cake-and-ice cream deregulation everyone should get a tax cut kind of way.

If we are going to govern, we must govern in a responsible way, because we are putting our children in a position that no other nation's children will be in as it relates to paying back this debt, and I think it's very, very important.

SMITH: Mr. Crist, you've got competing interests, in a way, cutting the deficit and creating jobs. Which one of those two is more important?

CRIST: Creating jobs, no question about it. I mean, that's the immediate problem, the acute issue that is facing our country and our state is making sure that we create jobs and get the economy going again. That's why I think you have to have a two-pronged approach. Number one, you need to cut taxes. You need to reduce the burden on small businesses. I think that's what Marco and I agree upon, is that you have to reduce the tax burden so small business owners and entrepreneurs can begin to grow the economy and hire people.

But I also agree with the congressman when he talks about the fact that the Recovery Act saved 60,000 jobs among law enforcement officials, firefighters in the state of Florida, plus another 20,000 educators. It's common sense is what we need. And that's what is lacking with the situation in Washington today.

You have so much partisanship that -- and ideological discussion, as the congressman referred to, and he's right. And the fact of the matter is that you have to get away from ideology, get back to being practical, utilize common sense and have meaningful, you know...


SMITH: Would Florida be better off without those 60,000 jobs if we hadn't had the stimulus?

RUBIO: Well, I think that's a false choice, because it presumes that there were no other solutions in place. But let me address a couple of things that the congressman pointed out and the governor has followed up on.

He talks about these tax cuts. They're not tax cuts. It's the existing tax code. And all I'm saying, and quite frankly, Congressman, a growing number of Democrats have begun to say, including the congressional Democrats here in Florida, is that it is a bad time to raise taxes on anybody.

There is a growing number of Democrats that are now saying that as well. That it's a bad time to raise taxes on anybody. The question you asked the governor is a very good question about spending or tax cuts. Actually, the only way we're going to get out of this predicament is a two-pronged approach of growing the economy and fiscal constraint. And you have to do them both.

I think where Republicans have failed in the past is they have been very good on the, you know, tax cut side and growth side, but they don't want to take on the fiscal constraint side. And if you don't do both, you end up growing the debt. And so you've got to be able to do both.

MEEK: Candy, this is the point that I'm making. The real issue is the fact that he's saying that he's a deficit hawk, but at the same time he's saying, let's give tax cuts. It was a different economic time, Speaker, when the tax cuts were temporarily given at the beginning. No one ran on, hey, I'm going to give billionaires and millionaires a tax cut. It was temporary.

There were surpluses. There are no longer surpluses. So we're digging a deeper hole. And what Rubio and also Crist representing, let's continue to dig, and trickle-down economics will work for the middle class in creating jobs.

CROWLEY: But let me ask you, though. And Mr. Rubio is right, that an increasing number of Democrats are looking at this, going, you know, we might need to raise -- we might need to extend these tax cuts for people who do make more than $250,000 a year.

And just to explain, at the moment the administration had initially pushed everybody that's make $250,000 -- families, $250,000 and under would be allowed to keep the tax credit -- tax breaks. Anybody making over that, the tax cuts without disappear.

Now, Mr. Biden, vice president, said recently the White House is open to a compromise. That perhaps they could raise that income threshold, maybe to $500,000, or perhaps you could extend things for those making over $250,000 for a year or two years. Are you open to that kind of compromise?

MEEK: What I am open to is 3 to 4 percent of those job producers that are there. Obviously in the legislative process we have to look at how we can come to final rest. I want the middle class to be able to get that tax cut and be assured of it, if not more.

CROWLEY: Sure. Everybody thinks that, though. The question is...

MEEK: If not more. If not more.

CROWLEY: ... where are you going to find -- where's the compromise? Would you agree to something that would raise that threshold? Would you agree to something that would temporarily extend those tax cuts for the wealthy?

MEEK: Well, when you look at the threshold of raising the income level, that may be one idea. But I can tell you there's a lot of representation for the upper income earners in this country. I'm here representing the middle class.

Even though you may say some people say that they're for it, I think it's very, very important to note that the middle class has carried this recession on their back like no one else. And I think it's very, very important that we continue to give them extra attention. They deserve it.

MEEK: They're going to pay $6,000 per year for the very tax cut that folks are looking at saying we should do. I'm in the top percentage, but does it make it fair? Does it make it fair because I am leading on behalf of people that are expecting for me to stand up for them, not special interests, not the folks--


SMITH: Would you be willing to compromise on the tax cuts? And what would be an appropriate threshold?


RUBIO: I think the appropriate thing is to extend it for everybody. And let me tell you why because the congressman--

CROWLEY: Here's the problem. If you're going to talk about bipartisanship, if -- as Mr. Crist does -- if you're going to talk about bipartisanship and the White House says to you we're willing to compromise. Maybe we can raise the threshold, maybe we can extend it for a couple of years. Don't you have to say, OK, that's something we can think about?

RUBIO: But Candy, it is bipartisanship, because a growing number of Senate Democrats -- there are now five Democrats in the Senate who are saying to do this. There's now I don't know how many Democrats in the House, colleagues, including two congressional Democrats here in Florida, the nominee of the Democratic Party for governor here in Florida, who are all saying that my position is the correct one, I mean my position -- the position I've adopted.

There's a fundamental question here, though, and I'm glad the congressman brought it up, because the fundamental question is, is our problem because people aren't paying enough in taxes or is our problem because government is spending too much? And the answer can be found in the president's budgets. The president's budgets -- the president's budgets which I presume that the congressman supports -- call for massive tax increases over the next decade. And yet even with the president's massive tax increases, the debt will double by the middle of this decade and triple by the end of this decade. So you clearly have a spending problem, which is what's driving the national debt.

CROWLEY: Governor Crist, let me get you in on this--

CRIST: Can I make a point on the tax cuts first, if you don't mind?

CROWLEY: Yes, that's where I was going to go with you, on the tax cuts. And simply, let's point out here that Congress being Congress, this may well go into January when one or the other of you three will be in the Senate. Do you see compromise anyplace?

CRIST: I see the fundamental problem on full display at this table, and you ask a very smart question. You know, the speaker and I support extending the tax cuts for everybody. We agree on that. We're both fiscal conservatives. I always has been. I'm a social moderate, however.

But when you ask the question is there a room for some compromise, this came up about three weeks ago, and the issue was presented to John Boehner, potentially the next speaker, depending on the outcome of these elections. And the question put to him was, would you go ahead and accept what the president has put on the table without extending it beyond $250,000 a year? And he said, you know, it might be worth looking at.

Well, you know, within moments, the wrath of the right wing of the Republican Party comes crashing down on the guy's head. He has to essentially reverse his view and say no way.

Now, Speaker Rubio, with all due respect, he didn't really answer your question, you know, whether or not he would be willing to accept compromise. Sometimes you have to compromise. I want all the tax cuts extended, but I also understand what the congressman understands, you've got to give relief to the people and they deserve it now. So if there's a way to go ahead and do that in the short term, and then after January push for the other tax cuts, that's what I think the real solution is. It's utilizing common sense to do what's right for the people in a meaningful way that is bipartisan that makes progress for America. And that's what they deserve. That's what Florida wants.

RUBIO: There's a difference between compromise and cutting a deal. Compromise is a good thing. Cutting deals in Washington, there's too much of that. The bottom line is that any compromise that allows taxes -- any compromise that does not extend the current tax code to everybody is a tax increase. And the congressman likes to point out, well, this is the super-wealthy, these are individuals -- let me tell you what the tax increase that he's proposing and he supports, who it targets.

It targets individuals that comprise about 30 percent of consumer spending in America. It comprises about 50 percent of the small business taxes that are paid in our country. That's corporations that pay on their personal rate. Raising taxes on 30 percent of our consumer spenders or on the job creators that comprise 50 percent of small business taxes in America would be a disaster in the middle of this deep economic downturn.

SMITH: Would you support (ph) a compromise so at least middle- class tax cuts do happen? RUBIO: I think that the votes are going to be there to extend this. The only thing standing in the way of it is the stubbornness of the White House and the liberal leadership of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

CROWLEY: Do you think what's wrong with Washington is that the White House thinks you're stubborn and you think they're stubborn?

RUBIO: Well, I don't think the White House is just stubborn. So do other Democrats who have now signed on. We have five Senate Democrats saying we've got to vote on this thing and extend -- so that the taxes are extended for everybody. It's not me just saying that. There are Senate Democrats--


MEEK: Let me just say this. Let me just say this.


CRIST: -- this kind of bickering back and forth, not being able to figure out what to do, ideological arguments without common sense, you know, compromising to do what's right for the people. You're seeing it right here, right now. That's why I'm running as an independent is to give the people of Florida a choice.


MEEK: Let me just say this. Let me just say this. All right, we know why the governor is running as an independent, because he couldn't beat Marco Rubio. OK? Let's just put it that way.


MEEK: No, that's OK. No, no, no, no, no, wait a minute.

CROWLEY: One second, let me just ask the audience--

MEEK: Let me finish.

CROWLEY: You're going to cut into our time and they want to talk. So--

MEEK: Let me finish -- let me--

CRIST: I want to speak for myself on this point, if I can.

MEEK: You just spoke, Governor. Wait a minute.


CROWLEY: Why don't you go ahead and finish your time. I promise you--

CRIST: The reason I'm running as an independent is because it's what the people want and it's what's right with my own heart. I have got to be honest with myself. The Republican Party and the right wing of that party went so far right, it's exactly why Marco Rubio stayed there, it's exactly the same reason that I left. He wants to overturn -- listen to me, women watching -- overturn Roe versus Wade. He does not support stem cell research. You know, these are extreme views that I am not comfortable with. He took it to a point so much so that said that, you know, people who essentially don't agree with him, ought to leave the country, like Keith Olbermann.


CRIST: That's unconscionable to me.

SMITH: (inaudible) Marco Rubio in that primary, you would have left the party?

CRIST: Absolutely, because you have to be right with yourself, Adam. And you know, when the party has those kinds of views and represents that kind of intolerance, that's not the way my parents, who are here today, raised me and my sisters. I couldn't live with that. So I left and here we are as an independent.

CROWLEY: Let me ask you, because I am going to -- wait in line here and I will get to both of you because there was a lot going there. But we've got to take a quick break. When we come back, we will let you continue with that, yes.


CROWLEY: Welcome back to the Florida Senate debate. Let's see. The question was about tax cuts, and somehow we went from there to why Mr. Crist got out of the Republican primary and whether or not Mr. Rubio would deny a woman a right to choose.


So, Mr. Meek, if you can tax cuts or anything else that was said in there?

MEEK: Candy, you're pretty good.


Let me just say this. I just want to go back -- you know, the governor cut me off and talked about bickering in Washington, but that's another thing.

Let me just say this. The reason why the governor's argument doesn't really penetrate Florida voters is that he's been all over the board, first a Republican; then he became an independent, went down and nominated himself to sit here at this table at this very point.

Now he wants to pick up Democratic ideas to talk about Roe v. Wade. And he doesn't really have an opportunity to say that when he is pro-life. I'm the only pro-choice candidate that's sitting here. I don't need to talk about a Supreme Court case. I have 100 percent voting record when it comes down to a woman's right to choose.

I think it's also important to know that we sit in this economy at 12 percent unemployment and, you know -- you know, Speaker Rubio sits here talking about deal-cutting. He was the speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. That's all he did. And he deal-cut all the time and he compromised all the time.

And so he sits here and he criticized an administration. So I just want to make sure that everyone understands, you know, there's no milk around our mouths here of being new to politics. It's important that we level with the people of the state of Florida. I'm the only candidate here to qualify by petition here in this state. The reason why I did it, so that I could carry the voices of Floridians.

I'm the only candidate that's really talking about military families in this campaign. Folks want to talk about war; they want to talk about Afghanistan; they want to talk about Iraq. I'm the only person that's been there. I'm the only person that understands what these families are going through, who have committed their loved ones to war for the last 10 years, many of them the ages of these young people here in this audience.

So when it comes down to unpopular, what people think and five Democrats or a certain amount of Democrats say that the tax policy is wrong, you know, I'm on the side of making sure that those that are climbing and biting and fighting and sitting at a dining room table trying to figure out how they're going to make ends meet, I'm their voice in this United States Senate race and I'll be their voice and I'll be their voice in the Senate.

CROWLEY: OK, you'll be happy to know that we are going to get to Afghanistan, but Mr. Rubio's name has come up several times, so...

RUBIO: Well, here's a couple of things. I don't -- we don't need to go down the long and torturous road of the governor's change on positions and so forth. That's been well-documented. I mean, I do think it's curious that he attacks me for positions he held, like, six months ago, he was running in the Republican primary and we were debating together on Fox News.

But beyond that, we were having a debate about tax policy. And, look, Congressman, there's nothing wrong with compromise on ideas. I think, if people have a common goal of growing the economy and there are different ideas about how to accomplish that, I think that's a good thing. What I don't think we can compromise is on principles.

And on principle, I believe that tax increases, particularly in the middle of a deep economic downturn, is a bad idea. And I think the question that was posed is, are you open to a deal or to a compromise, or whatever we're going to term it, that would allow taxes to go up on somebody in America in the middle of this downturn.

And clearly, I think what came out of the exchange is that I'm the only one running for U.S. Senate in Florida who has said flatly that I am not in favor of and cannot support any compromise or deal or whatever you want to call it that would raise taxes on anybody in America in the middle of this deep economic recession. That's an important distinction.


CRIST: Listen to what he just said. He wouldn't accept tax cuts on 98 percent of the people in America because of his ideology. That's exactly the problem. That's what's not right with Washington today. Marco Rubio doesn't have to go to Washington...

CROWLEY: Isn't ideology another name for what you believe in, though?

CRIST: No. It's...

CROWLEY: And do you really want someone that is going to go to the U.S. Senate and compromise on what they believe... (CROSSTALK)

CRIST: ... that is so rigid they can't listen to arguments of other people. God gave us two ears...


CRIST: God gave us two ears...

MEEK (?): That's not a good argument.

CRIST: And it's more important, I think, to listen than to chatter all day long or go up to Washington, D.C. as an ideological right-wing senator and scream on cable channels all day long. The people are sick of that. That's exactly what they do not want. They want leadership...

SMITH: Let's switch gears for a second...


CRIST: They want leadership and somebody to go there to fight for them instead of to fight for the ideology.

SMITH: Mr. Rubio, is -- is America safer and better off for having gone to war in Iraq?

RUBIO: I think the answer ultimately is yes. First of all, the world is better off because Saddam Hussein is no longer in charge in Iraq. And I think we have to remind ourselves of that, is that the world is a better and safer place because Saddam Hussein no longer is in charge of that country.

Let's understand one thing. Right now, we are worried about Iran possessing a nuclear weapon. Well, if Saddam Hussein was still there, and you know the relationship and the long history between Iraq and Iran, you'd have two nations in a full-blown arms war, the way you've seen, for example, between Pakistan and India.

So the world is a better and safer place, and not to mention the Iraqi people are better off than they were under Saddam Hussein. There's no doubt that Iraq has a long way to go. You know, there are a lot of issues that that society and that that nation-state faces. But it is better off today than it was when Saddam Hussein...

SMITH: Mr. Meek, same question.

MEEK Well, I would tell you this. There was a no-fly zone prior to going into Iraq. It was a war that was brought about based on falsehoods and not on fact. And also, there are a number of American lives that have lost -- have been lost.

Saying that, those sacrifices that have been made, I think it's very, very important to note that the international community must continue to stay involved in Iraq. The biggest embassy in the world, the U.S. embassy, is in Iraq right now because of the Bush doctrine. I think it's important to note that I understand the situation as it relates to the world being safer because we went into Iraq. I couldn't necessarily give you that overall blanket "yes" on that because it was a lot of...

SMITH: You think we'd be better off if we hadn't gone in?

MEEK: Well, I think we would have been better off if we would have looked at diplomatic solutions and wouldn't have been lied to by the Bush administration. I think it's -- I think a number of American lives could have been saved and this could have been a different world if we would have gave diplomacy an opportunity.

CRIST: I think the world is a safer place because of the action we took in Iraq. And I also think it's right of the administration to do what we're doing right now in Afghanistan.

And one of the best things and the best parts of that policy is the appointment of General David Petraeus to lead our troops on the ground in this conflict.

The number one function of our government is to have safety and security for the people of our country, to make sure that we're safe on our shores, that we do what's right to maintain order in our society.

And I think that the administration is on a path to try to do that, and General Petraeus is exactly the right guy to lead us there. So I compliment the commander in chief for doing so.

But we've got to keep our eye on Iran. The speaker is right. I agree that we have to be sure that we're monitoring what's happening there. I am very proud, as governor of Florida, that we signed the first divestment act, as it relates to Iran, divesting any investments in companies that would invest in Iran, because we support Israel so strongly here in this state and this country.

We have a unique, unbreakable bond with the state of Israel, between the state of Florida and our country. It's why my first trade mission was to Israel, as governor of Florida. And I went there with Robert Wexler, whose support I'm proud to have in this race for the U.S. Senate, a great former congressman from South Florida.

CROWLEY: Let me then move you to Afghanistan, where we're now learning that President Hamid Karzai is talking to high-level representatives of the Taliban in Afghanistan for an overall peace settlement.

Now, these are the same people that the U.S. went in to drive out of Afghanistan. Now the person that we are protecting and backing up -- and a lot of people have real questions about Hamid Karzai. I mean, he's -- even his mental stability has been questioned, whether he's really up to the job of putting together a government in Afghanistan, in question by U.S. officials. And now he's talking to people that the U.S. went in to drive out.

Is that acceptable? If there were a peace agreement between the Taliban and the government in Afghanistan, is that an acceptable way for this war to end?

RUBIO: I think, first, let's define what the role of the United States needs to be in Afghanistan and what I think victory looks like and how we need to define that. And victory, for us, is basically a stable nation-state in Afghanistan.

The reason why that's so important is not just because of Afghanistan but because of its neighbor in Pakistan. You know, if Afghanistan were to evolve into chaos, fall into the hands of extremists, it would become a base of operations to destabilize Pakistan and ultimately to take over Pakistan, a nuclear state. So that would be the worst possible scenario we can imagine.

So our role -- the United States' role is to provide a level of security so that a civil society can take root, so that governmental entities can take root and so that real leadership can be established.

As far as the tactics that are going to be used to accomplish that, I have confidence in the people that are on the ground there. I have confidence in General Petraeus. I have confidence in the folks that are involved. They will know tactically what needs to happen to accomplish that. But that is our goal there, and it's an important goal we need to be committed to.

CROWLEY: If you two want to get in on this, I'll let you do that, but we've got to take another quick break. We'll be right back.


CROWLEY: Welcome back to the Florida Senate debate.

Mr. Meek, I wanted to bring you in on the Afghanistan question. The basic question is, if the government of Afghanistan comes to some conclusion of this war in a deal with the Taliban, is that acceptable to you given the price in both blood and treasure that the U.S. has put in there?

MEEK: Unaccepting. Not accepting to -- acceptable to me. I think Pakistan should be also in this discussion when it comes down to monitoring the situation on the ground. The international community must be at the table because there's a lot of foreign affairs dollars that are going into Afghanistan.

I think the purse strings are going to dictate the deal. I think it's very, very important to understand that the Taliban has been there for years and years, I mean, hundreds of thousands of years. And I don't think that any -- you know, sitting down at a peace table is going to come about.

We cannot allow the very dangerous individuals that have brought about the true 9/11 to have a place of safety in Afghanistan on the Pakistan side. But I think diplomatic -- diplomacy is important and also predator drones.

CROWLEY: OK. Mr. Rubio, I want to turn you to a different subject, immigration. You have said throughout all of these debates that you want a secure border, an electronic system to identify who is in the country legally. OK. Let's pretend that all got done. You still have got 12 million people without papers in this country. What happens to them under your vision?

RUBIO: Well, first, I don't believe we can grant amnesty because I think it's unfair to the people who have entered this country legally. And I also think it will undermine...

CROWLEY: So you would send them all out of the country?

RUBIO: Well, it's not that simple. We all know -- I've never advocated that we round people up. I don't know anyone who is seriously talking about that. What I have said needs to have happen is we have to have a legal immigration system that functions.

And there's no one running in this country that's more pro-legal immigration than I am. Because my parents were immigrants, my grandparents were immigrants.

CROWLEY: But you still have -- you're still going to have that difficulty of 12 million people here that don't have papers. What, other than amnesty, but call it anything you want, let's just call it, you know, a plan.

RUBIO: Candy, you have to have a legal immigration system that works. First of all, the majority of people -- let's understand why people come here even illegally. They come here for jobs. And one of the things that contributes to illegal immigration is that we have a broken legal immigration system.

It's complicated. It's bureaucratic. It's difficult to comply with. In Florida, for example, a large percentage of people who are in this state without documents, they entered legally. They overstayed their visas.

CROWLEY: So you plan is that you're going to close the borders, get the electronic system, fix the legal system, and then do what?

RUBIO: And then I think if -- and then you'll have a legal immigration system that works. And you'll have people in this country that are without documents that will be able to return to the -- will be able to leave this country, return to their home land, and try to re-enter through our system that now functions, a system that makes sense.

SMITH: De facto amnesty if you're still not dealing with the illegals who are here?

CRIST: I think what's important is that we have a common sense approach to this problem, like every other in Washington, D.C., that they're unable to fix. And what I think we need to do is what former President Bush supported, Senator John McCain, Senator Mel Martinez, Senator Kyl from Arizona, and others. And that is, first, secure the border. That's the right thing to do. We have to do that to enforce the law.

After that I think you have to have an earned path to citizenship, not amnesty, as the speaker has unfairly characterized, in my view. I'm not for amnesty. People should have to get in the back of the line, pay a fine if necessary, their back taxes, and be able to become productive members of the American economy. It's a compassionate way.

You know, I'm very sympathetic to immigration. My grandfather immigrated to this country from Greece. He came here because he realized that America was a place that if you worked hard, lived by the rules, and did what was right, you could do better for yourself and your family. And he did just that.

But, see, Washington is broken. You know, these guys go up there, if they go, and they get into their foxhole. They can't come to compromise. They cooperate. They can't work together to get things done.

CROWLEY: Well, the compromise bill sort of was put up there. But let me -- then an election came.

Let me bring Mr. Meek in on this.

MEEK: Candy, I'm glad you checked Mr. Rubio on this whole amnesty issue, because the bottom line is the following. The DREAM Act was up, he said, well, you know, I'm for the DREAM Act but I'm not for the amnesty.

Well, what did the DREAM Act call for? Mr. Speaker, it called for individuals to serve in the military or attend an institution such as this to educate themselves so they don't become wards of the state because, of course, you're not for that. I think it's also important to note this whole thing of kicking the ball down the field, secure our borders, we've been talking about that for 15, 20 years.

It's important for us to move toward comprehensive immigration reform. And I'm the only one at this table that has voted for comprehensive immigration reform because I understand the realities as a former state trooper in enforcing the law. You cannot piecemeal law-making and say, oh, we'll do this and we'll do that. now, then we'll get to it.

That's 20 years down the road. This state cannot afford it. Now there's a guy by the name of Rick Scott who is running for governor here in Florida, and a combination between Marco Rubio and Rick Scott will send Florida's economy down into a hole.

Rick Scott wants to have an Arizona-style law that Marco Rubio...

CROWLEY: Before we get into the governor's race, we sort of have...

MEEK: That Marco Rubio supports. CROWLEY: ... more than we can handle kind of right here.

Let me just bring you in, because what -- I'm going to start enforcing 30 seconds because we have got some more questions and we're running out of time.

RUBIO: And I want to address that.

CROWLEY: Thirty seconds to address what was just said.

RUBIO: First of all, earned path to citizenship is basically code for amnesty. It's what they call it. And the reality of it is this. This has to do with the bottom line that America cannot be the only country in the world that does not enforce its immigration laws.

It is unfair to the people that have legally entered this country to create an alternative pathway for individuals who entered illegally and knowingly did so. And all I'm saying is that if you do that...


RUBIO: If I may finish statement on this. If you do that, you will never have a legal immigration system that works. No one is going to follow the law if there is an easier way to do it.

CROWLEY: I need to...


MEEK: I know you need to, but I think it's very, very important -- I think it's...


SMITH: Mr. Crist, you have changed your position...

CROWLEY: Let me do this...

SMITH: You've changed your position on a number of issues, from "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" to health care reform. Yesterday you criticized Marco Rubio for campaigning with Sarah Palin, someone who you campaigned side-by-side with in 2008.

CRIST: In order to help my friend John McCain, for the record.

SMITH: Well, if you've changed your mind on so many things, why should people not worry that you're going to change your mind on key issues once you get to Washington?

CRIST: Adam, I'm glad you asked the question because I think the people of Florida understand that it's important to see what the facts and circumstances are at the time. And if things change, you need to change what you're looking at, and understand that you have to have an independent thinker to be a good United States senator.

You know, facts change all of the time. Now if you want to elect somebody that's rigid, that -- you know, I think people want an open- minded senator rather than the opposite, a closed-minded senator, and is honest enough to say, you know, things change, and sometimes have to -- I'm an old quarterback.

CRIST: You know, I remember calling a play in the huddle and literally, as you're walking up to the line of scrimmage, you survey the defense, the facts and circumstances before you, see where the linebackers are, and realize that there's going to be a blitz. You've got to call an audible. You have to change to adapt to the circumstances to do the best thing for your state.

CROWLEY: Mr. Rubio, do you see -- do you see Mr. Crist as a person who's able to change the play when he has to and that or you're an ideologue, or how do you...

RUBIO: Well, two separate questions. I mean, Candy, this has been well-documented. I mean, he changes positions on the issues because he wants to win the election. I mean, it's been documented by the St. Pete's Times, the newspaper that Adam works in.

CRIST: That is so untrue and so unfair for you to interpret what's in my heart.

RUBIO: Can I finish the -- there's an article. I didn't write it. The article was in the St. Pete Times, and it said that, basically, on the day he switched parties, he was sitting across the table from a reporter...

CRIST: Well, let's talk about another article that was in the St. Pete Times...

RUBIO: ... and picked up the phone...

CRIST: ... about the job you got...


RUBIO: ... and called the pollster, and pollster told him you have a better chance of running as an independent.

CRIST: You traded tax money to get two jobs at a university and a hospital...

RUBIO: Can I -- can I...

CRIST: by steering millions of dollars to...

RUBIO: That's categorically false...

(CROSSTALK) CRIST: If people at home make $165,000 -- I don't, and I'm the governor of Florida.



But he traded money to get it.

That was in the St. Pete Times, too.


RUBIO: That is a false accusation. Not only is that a false accusation but it's been a trend in this campaign. Any time we get into the issues, the governor wants to turn it into something else because he's wrong on the issues.


CRIST: Why won't you release your RPOF credit card and clear this up?

RUBIO: On the ideologue issue, as of today, I have now been...

CRIST: And why is there a federal investigation into your reporting income?

RUBIO: This is just one litany of falsehoods after another.

CROWLEY: Well, why don't you -- maybe he would let you -- why don't you -- can you answer this question, and then we'll...

CRIST: ... across the state of Florida for the past year.

SMITH: Why not release the full IRS records, the full credit card statements from you charged on the card?

RUBIO: Adam, these questions have been answered now since February. My tax returns are public. I've gone well beyond the point of disclosure. The bottom line is people want to focus on these issues because they're wrong on the important issues. This country has a $13.5 trillion debt.

CRIST: He doesn't want to release them because he doesn't believe in transparency. I created the Office of Open Government in the governor's office for the first time in the history of our state.

RUBIO: I've never had a heckler at the debate. I've always had them in the audience.



CRIST: That's the way it is. Welcome to the NFL. SMITH: Go ahead. Let him finish.

RUBIO: I apologize. I mean, I've had this heckler going on for two minutes now. Here's what I'd like to be able to tell you about ideology and all this talk about -- this is a national talking point now that the Democrats have adopted across the country.

Here's the reality. I have now received the endorsement of six separate major newspapers in Florida, not exactly the place conservatives go to hang out, at editorial boards.

And the reason why they are supporting me is because I'm the only candidate in this race that's proposing serious answers to the serious issues that face America. And that's what this election is about, at the end of the day.

It's not about you, Governor. It's not about your ability to deliver the lines you've been planning for two weeks. It's not about you, Congressman. And it isn't even about me.

CRIST: It's about...

RUBIO: This election is about the people watching whose country is going in the wrong direction, who understand that, if we keep doing what we are doing now, we are going to be the first Americans in history to leave our children worse off than ourselves. That's what this election is about. I was hoping that's what this debate would be about. And I hope that's what the next eight days is about.


MEEK: Well, let me tell you -- let me tell you. Here's the deal. Here's the deal. Let me just say this.

CROWLEY: Go ahead.

MEEK: I just want to clarify I'm the only defensive player here at this table.


And I used to be an outside linebacker, and I used to sack quarterbacks and fold knees things of that nature. I think it's important. And I think, Marco, you know, you got me at the end when we started talking about the people that are looking for a United States senator to stand up for them.

I think it's very, very important, Candy, to understand that, in Florida, the reality is the following. A, jobs have to be created. B, we have to diversify our economy. C, we've got to stop the politics of offshore oil drilling in this state, that both of these gentlemen have been standing for in the past. It's kind of hard...

CRIST: I don't...

MEEK: Well, now you don't. (LAUGHTER)

CRIST: No, I don't.

MEEK: You know, Governor, if you let -- if you allow me to give straight answers of positions that I've had for the last umpteen years, I would appreciate it.

CRIST: Go ahead.

MEEK: Thank you so very much. I think it's important, Candy, to understand that, when a United States senator from Florida hits the floor in Washington, D.C., they must have the will and the desire to stand up on behalf of the people and not the special interests.

And I think both of these candidates have done so in the past. I think that's the reason why the personal nature of where people stand on issues such as comprehensive immigration reform -- it's not amnesty. It's an issue that's facing this state. Don't you know that tourism is a $63 billion industry in Florida? And if we allow an Arizona-style law to prosper here, we will see individuals boycott -- boycotting the state that will hurt our economy.

CROWLEY: I've got to halt this...

RUBIO: Listen to Kendrick talk about being a linebacker and buckling knees, I'm just glad he's not going to hit me.

CROWLEY: OK, good. So let me hold you all right there. We'll be back after this.


CROWLEY: We'd like to thank the University of South Florida, the St. Petersburg Times, and of course the three Florida Senate candidates for joining us here today.

And please don't forget, tomorrow night, John King will moderate the Florida gubernatorial debate, live at 7:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN. Thank you for watching "State of the Union."