DAVIE, Fla. - The first and only debate between Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican challenger Rep. Connie Mack IV Wednesday came across almost like the old school-yard taunt, "I know you are, but what am I?"
Both candidates accused each other of lying about the other's records, both used the "there you go again" line made famous three decades ago by President Ronald Reagan and both strayed from the subject of questions to take shots at the other.
The debate wasn't so much a look at what the candidates will support if elected, but rather a lot of finger pointing about each other's records to date.
Mack, 45, began the debate by accusing Nelson of voting 150 times to raise taxes, voting to gut the military and being the deciding vote on President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. Nelson, 70, immediately balked, saying "I'm looking forward to pointing out what the truth is because everything the congressman just said is not true."
And thus the stage was set for a bitter hour-long exchange.
"Sen. Nelson cast the deciding vote to cut $700 billion out of Medicare. What did Senator Nelson say before the vote? He said it is unconscionable to whack away Medicare Advantage from our seniors, but that's exactly what he did," Mack said.
While Nelson did vote for the health care overhaul, Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, no relation, was the last Democrat to commit to the bill. Bill Nelson also pointed out that he negotiated a deal that protected Florida seniors already enrolled in Medicaid Advantage, a private plan for seniors paid for by the government. And he said the $700 billion was a savings, not a cut to beneficiaries. The law cuts Medicare spending for hospitals and other providers by more than $700 billion over a decade.
"I'm not going to let you get away with this. The $716 billion was in fact savings that extended the life of Medicare for eight years. Medicare was going to run out in three years," Nelson said. "He voted to cut Medicare by taking away the guaranteed benefit with a voucher that a senior citizen would have to negotiate with an insurance company."
The debate was held at Nova Southeastern University in Davie and organized by Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association.
Both sides made repeated assertions that already been debunked by fact checkers. Mack's charge that Nelson has voted to raise taxes more than 150 times has been labeled "false" by Politifact Florida, which pointed out Mack is counting non-binding budget resolutions and counted multiple votes on the same bill.
Nelson, a member of the Senate budget committee, repeatedly denied Mack's claim that the Senate hasn't passed a budget in four years. Mack was correct, however. While the Senate has passed measures to keep the government going it has not passed a full budget resolution since 2009.
They also clashed over the fact that Nelson receives an agricultural tax break on property because a small herd of cattle is kept on them. Nelson does receive the tax break, but argues that his family has used the property for agriculture since 1952.
Mack repeated several lines over and over, including one saying Nelson says one thing in Florida and then votes differently in Washington — an effort to paint him as a liberal who supports Obama with nearly every vote while maintaining an image as a moderate back home.
Nelson drew laughs when responding to one of the comments.
"Is that the only line that you have memorized?" Nelson said.
Nelson repeated some lines of his own, like accusing Mack of missing too many votes as a congressman.
"You haven't talked about all of the tax cuts that I've voted for," Nelson said. "Let' talk about the votes you missed. When you show up, it's even worse because you try to take out Medicare and Social Security."
Mack avoided a question about how to balance the budget without raising taxes or cutting Medicare, Social Security and the military by saying the solution is creating jobs, which would increase revenue.
"We're going to make sure that job creators are going to get back in the game. If you want more revenue to come into the federal government, you do it by putting people back to work," he said. "The best economic engine we have is the American people."
Nelson answered the question by pointing to Medicare savings already enacted and by saying U.S. troops can be removed from European bases that were established in the Cold War.
The pair was hampered by the one minute, 15 second limit they had to answer most questions, leaving little time for full and complete responses.
The debate ended almost as bitterly as it began. Nelson accused Mack of voting for a bill that defines rape as "forcible rape" and of illegally claiming two property tax homestead exemptions. Mack's wife, California Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack, has an exemption on her home while Mack has an exemption on his Fort Myers condo.
"Senator, you keep talking about my record," Mack said. "I think you might have looked somebody else up when you've been doing your research because it's not me."
"There you go again," said Nelson, referring to earlier in the debate when Mack used a similar line.
"Apparently I have to keep doing it again because you just don't understand. And that's the problem," Mack said.
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