ORLANDO, Fla. - Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio tried to turn what could be his biggest liability -- GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump -- into a strength Monday during his first debate with Democratic opponent Rep. Patrick Murphy.
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“On this stage tonight, there’s only one person that’s ever run against Donald Trump and tried to defeat him and that was me,” said Rubio, under attack from Murphy for supporting Trump, even if he won't campaign with him.
Rubio, seeking re-election, then turned the attack around, pointing to Murphy’s family-business ties to Trump, picking up on reporting Friday by Buzzfeed that noted Murphy's family business was construction manager for two of Trump's condominium projects.
“There’s only person on this stage tonight whose family made millions of dollars in partnership with Donald Trump and that’s you,” said Rubio, of Miami.
Over the course of the heated hour-long debate, held at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, the shadow of both unpopular presidential candidates loomed over the Senate candidates. Murphy, of Jupiter, hounded Rubio on his refusal to withdraw his support for Trump after more than 160 GOP members around the country have done so in recent weeks. Rubio attacked Murphy for supporting Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton even though she used personal email servers that stored classified information while serving as Secretary of State.
Murphy said he trusted Clinton's temperament as president with nuclear codes. When the moderator reminded Rubio that he previously said during his presidential primary run that he didn’t trust Trump with nuclear codes because he was a “lunatic,” Rubio said: “I have deep reservations about the nominee of my party.”
Rubio said he didn’t trust Clinton’s foreign policy.
The Senate race represents one of eight seats identified early on that could hand control of the chamber to Democrats. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden gave Murphy their endorsement in March, and the national Democratic Party and a separate super PAC originally secured $20.8 million, according to Politico, in ad buys for their candidate.
Before Rubio made the last-minute decision to enter the Senate race, Murphy was favored to win the general election.
However, on June 22, the day Rubio put his hat in the ring, CBS Miami published the first part of an investigative series, which indicated Murphy inflated his resume. Rubio has been leading in the polls since July. To add insult to injury, most of those originally-secured ad buys by the national party have been pulled, according to Politico, making it difficult for Murphy to overcome one of his biggest disadvantages against his Republican opponent who competed in the presidential primary: name recognition.
In May, only about a month before Rubio made a last minute decision to run for reelection, he tweeted, “I have only said, like 10,000 times, I will be a private citizen in January.”
In addition to Rubio’s reluctance to run initially, he had a poor attendance record during his first term, which Murphy has attacked. Murphy resumed this attack Monday and pushed Rubio to promise that, if elected, he would not run for president in 2020.
“Will you join me tonight in signing a six-year pledge that you are committed to serving this job and not going to seek higher office?” Murphy said.
“I am going to serve in the Senate for the next six years,” Rubio said, adding "God willing," without specifically promising to serve the term.
Murphy originally asked Rubio to sign this pledge after Rubio made an unusually aggressive move for an incumbent and challenged Murphy to six debates. Murphy said he would agree to the debates if Rubio would sign the pledge. So far, Murphy has agreed to only one other debate.
Florida’s surging Hispanic population, coupled with Trump’s strong immigration stance, has opened the door for Murphy to pull from the Cuban-descendant’s Hispanic support. Murphy has attacked Rubio’s shifting stance on the DREAMers act, an executive action by Obama intended to protect young undocumented immigrants in the United States. He resumed this attack during the debate and broadened it to include Rubio’s position on comprehensive reform and his refusal to withdraw support for Trump.
“You were the champion of comprehensive immigration reform. And then what happened? You decided to run for president. So you flip-flopped on that issue,” Murphy said.
“And you now don’t support a pathway to citizenship, you no longer support those DREAMers and, if that’s not bad enough, you’ve doubled down on your endorsement of Donald Trump, the man who wants to build a wall, who thinks that Mexicans are rapists and criminals.”
Rubio responded confidently and, a bit flippantly, underscoring his main attack that Murphy accomplished little in his first four years of congress.
“Congressman Murphy, you’ve never even been involved in the immigration reform issue. You only started talking about it like four weeks ago. You might have signed onto some letter, maybe you had a Facebook page,” said Rubio.
Panelist Nancy Alvarez, who pointed out the Rubio decided to run for re-election after the Pulse Night Club shooting in Orlando where most of its victims were Hispanic, asked whether Rubio turned his back on Hispanics and “sold out” when he backed down from comprehensive immigration reform.
“I want to fix the problem,” Rubio said. “We cannot fix it with a comprehensive approach and a one-size-fits-all bill. The votes just simply aren’t there.”
Rubio proposed a piece-meal plan that involved controlling undocumented immigration, making legal immigration easier and then helping undocumented immigrants already living in the United States who don’t have criminal records.
Alvarez then followed up with Murphy and asked how he could leverage attacks on Rubio when he was one of 24 Democrats in the House to join the Republican majority and vote for the passage of a bill that also restarted deportation of young undocumented immigrants.
“He’s running for Senate,” Rubio said before Murphy had a chance to respond.
“Whoa,” Murphy said. “I support comprehensive immigration reform and I always have.”
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