WINTER PARK, Fla. (AP) -- Independent candidate Charlie Crist was taken to task during the final U.S. Senate debate Tuesday for his answers on leaving the GOP, shifting policy positions, and whether he'd caucus with Democrats or the GOP should he win the three-way race.
The governor's switch has been the subject of past debates with Republican Marco Rubio and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek, but on Tuesday, it was moderator David Gregory of NBC's "Meet The Press" who grilled Crist over his responses.
"You've dodged this question for months," Gregory said before asking Crist which party he'd caucus with if elected. When Crist repeated that he'd ask both parties questions before deciding, Gregory asked, "Does that mean your vote's for sale."
Gregory reminded Crist that he said he'd left the Republican Party earlier this year because of extreme positions within the party on abortion and stem cell research. The moderator then pointed out that those positions aren't new, even producing GOP policy papers from 2008 that spell them out.
"Governor, reasonably, you think Floridians should say, 'Wow! Something changed since 2008.' That all of a sudden the opposition to stem cell research, using federal dollars for that, or overturning Roe v. Wade is somehow an extreme view of the Republican Party when it's been part of the platform for years?" Gregory asked, referring to the Supreme Court decision that established a woman's right to have an abortion.
"It's been part of the platform for years, but the level of discourse has changed dramatically," Crist said. "I think everybody on the planet understands the Republican Party has gone hard right."
Crist announced his independent run the day before the deadline to qualify for the ballot. He badly trailed Rubio in the polls at the time. Now Rubio is leading most polls, with Crist and Meek trying to emerge as his main challenger.
Gregory also seemed to be skeptical that Crist policy shifts on issues such as gay adoption - which he now supports after previously having opposed - were because of an evolution in thinking, as Crist explained.
"As we get older, I call it the convergence of life experience and wisdom. When you learn through the time of life more tolerance and become less judgmental, I think that's a good place to be," Crist said.
"Four years did that for you?" Gregory asked, with a hint of doubt before bringing up another policy shift. "The criticism is that this is a pattern, that this again is political expediency - this isn't a heartfelt change of views."
"This is a heartfelt change of view, and only I can know that," Crist said. "People will either believe it or they won't."
With the candidates seated at a table similar to that on "Meet The Press," Gregory then asked Rubio and Meek their thoughts on Crist's shifting positions.
"People change their minds in politics, of course they can," Rubio said. "When you see it as part of a political calculation is when people get troubled by it."
Meek said he disagrees with Rubio on policy issues, but he can believe the former Florida House speaker when he says where he stands on them. And unlike Crist, Rubio has been consistent with his positions, Meek said.
"Gay adoptions didn't change for me when I started running for the United States Senate, I've always been for it, Meek said. "As a public policy person, I'm really bothered by some of his positions because of the fact that when I hear flip-flops in the hallway, I think it's the governor walking down the hall."
Crist defended himself, saying people don't want a closed-minded senator.
"Being flexible is not a sin. And understanding that facts and circumstances change is being a thinking person with an open mind," Crist said. "It is frustrating for my partisan opponents to understand that, but that's really how I am and I think that's how most of Florida is."
After the debate, Gregory said he wanted the governor to be more specific than he had in the past in explaining himself.
"For the first time to my ears Governor Crist engaged on that topic more than he had before," Gregory said. "Some incredulity can help."
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