C&E: What were your overall reactions to the three-way Florida Senate debate between candidates Marco Rubio, Kendrick Meek and Gov. Charlie Crist?
Gamarra: It seems to me that it is fairly clear where the candidate’s positions are. On the one hand, Rubio is largely trying to consolidate his grip on a Republican party that he believes, and many believe, should be further to the right than perhaps would be considered mainstream. Mr. Rubio in some measure last night was able to put out some of those views. It is clear that he believes that his base is more conservative than perhaps might be expected. As a Cuban American, he has a constituency that has been historically conservative on foreign policy issues but not that conservative on social issues. It will be an interesting test for him.
Second, the Crist campaign is obviously trying to put itself in the middle believing that it can reap some of the more mainstream Republicans and also some of the more centrist Democrats. He is trying to make Meek and Rubio appear as extremists, and he is trying to position himself in this middle ground. Last night that [strategy] came out very clearly as well.
In Meek, he is a consistent Democrat in the sense that he represents what I think are [mainstream values] in the Democratic party – at least the party as it is linked to President Obama. In this state, that is somewhat problematic. It has been difficult in this state to run as the candidate from the Democratic party. I think Mr. Meek is a good candidate who could have done well in different circumstances, but the circumstances [in today’s political environment] are tough. Our electorate is more on the right than the center. Crist and Rubio have typecast meek as someone who is on the left.
C&E: Do you think Crist’s attempts to look like the salient middle man, immune to partisan bickering, were effective last night?
Gamarra: It was effective before the debate and I think he [Crist] came across as trying to consolidate that position. But, frankly, I don’t think he did that well. Look at the impact of the crisis here – Dade County has 13 percent unemployment and one of the highest foreclosure rates in country. Part of rift between Rubio and Crist occurs largely because Crist embraced the stimulus plan. It seems here that [the stimulus issue is split along] party lines. If you are a Democrat, you see the stimulus worked. If you are a Republican, you see the plan hasn’t worked.
Crist, as the governor, really went against the [Republican] party. That has served Rubio extremely well in [his being able to] assert his command as the real Republican, the real conservative, running against Washington and Obama-care, that has moved our country toward socialism – that Tea Party thing, you know? In a debate especially, it is important to sting a candidate with those characterizations. In that sense, Rubio was good.
C&E: What was your impression of Crist’s jab at Rubio, “You haven’t been drinking the Kool-Aid, my friend, you’ve been drinking too much tea?”
Gamarra: One-liners are effective in debates. Again, I am not sure that accusing Rubio of being an extremist will work right now. Just to give you one example, we [The Newlink Group] did a survey a month ago for the Miami-Herald measuring the strength of immigration reform [proposals in Florida] among Hispanics who voted in 2008. In Florida, we have a high proportion of Hispanics that support the Arizona [illegal immigration] law, and a high proportion of Hispanics that favor strict immigration reform. Rubio is running on a platform that [advocates for] an Arizona law for Florida as the Hispanic candidate. That is the Tea Party platform. Those one liners that should work I don’t think went very far.
C&E: While we are on the subject of one-liners, what was your impression of Mr. Meek’s reference to Gov. Crist as “Governor Wallace, when it came down to gay adoptions in this state,” and that Crist “stood in the schoolhouse door on this issue?”
Gamarra: That is an important issue and we have a large gay population in Florida which is significant as far as voting numbers are concerned. [The gay population] is much more likely to be in the Meek camp already, not so much in the Rubio camp. There may be some conservative gays that are probably likely to vote for Rubio, but was it [Meek’s line] effective in terms of swaying voters in the gay community in south Florida? I don’t think so. If you want to look at how the debate evolved. It was kind of the situation where Meek and Rubio ganged up on Crist in the center.
C&E: Rubio asked Gov. Crist several times why he did not simply pass the Florida legislatures’ budget if his intention was to save the state from deficits. That gave Crist the opportunity to say that their budget was pork laden and needed to be revised. Do you think this was a misstep by Rubio? Were those budgets “full of pork” as Crist claimed?
Gamarra: That is sort of true, but it is sort of true on both sides. One of the things that characterized Rubio was that he was a very effective legislator. He went in [as Florida’s House Speaker] with about 100 items and he got something like 60 percent of those passed. That, of course, makes it quite interesting. How he was perceived is why he got to where he is now. There were a lot of bills which were filled with pork, that’s true. It is also probably true that where Crist scrapped initiatives, it would have increased spending significantly.
Dr. Eduardo Gamarra is a managing partner of the Newlink Research Group. He has participated in the creation and implementation of political strategies for numerous governments and Latin American political candidates. He was the editor of Hemisphere, a magazine focused on Latin America and Caribbean issues and is a member of Campaigns & Elections Latin American edition’s editorial board. As an expert source, Eduardo has contributed to more than 60 articles about Latin America. He has also testified before the United States Congress regarding issues such as Latin American anti-drug policies and has assisted numerous projects for agencies such as USAID, ONIPD, the European Union, and the World Bank. He was an essential figure in the political campaigns of Leonel Fernandez in the Dominican Republic, serving as the director of government strategy in 2004 & 2008 and as strategic advisor in 1996. Eduardo received his doctorate in Political Science from Pittsburgh University in 1987. Since 1986, he has been affiliated with Florida International University where he maintains tenure in Political Science and currently serves as the director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at email@example.com