Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and his Democratic challenger, Rep. Val Demings, dueled over inflation, abortion rights and immigration Tuesday night in what is expected to be their only debate before the election.
The hourlong debate held at Palm Beach State College was punctuated by persistent interruptions and insults as the candidates each criticized the other's legislative record on Capitol Hill.
“Of course, the senator who has never run anything at all but his mouth would know nothing about helping people and being there for people when they are in trouble,” Demings said, citing widespread GOP opposition last year to President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.
Rubio, who hopes to secure a third term in the Senate, cast Demings as having achieved little since she was first elected to the House in 2016.
“The congresswoman likes to talk about helping people. She’s never passed a bill. She’s never passed a single bill,” Rubio said, highlighting his bipartisan achievements on issues like toxic burn pits legislation.
“I have a record of not just identifying the problems but fixing it,” he said.
Heading into the debate, Demings had targeted Rubio on abortion, an issue that Democrats nationwide have highlighted to drive turnout in November. Demings continued the line of attack Tuesday night.
“We are not going back, senator, no matter how obsessed you are with a woman’s body and her right to choose,” she said. “We are not going back to a time where women are treated like second-class citizens or like property.”
Rubio sidestepped a question whether he would vote for a federal abortion ban without exceptions, saying he didn't think the situation would present itself.
"I'm interested in saving human lives, and that's why every law that's out there has exceptions," Rubio said. "We're never going to get a vote on a law that doesn't have exceptions."
Rubio over the years has supported various forms of abortion bans, some with exceptions and some without. Most recently, he co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that prohibits abortion after 15 weeks and includes exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.
When he went on the offensive, Rubio blamed Democrats for the high rate of inflation and suggested that Demings and her Democratic colleagues failed to heed warnings from economists who had argued that checks designed to help buoy Americans amid the financial challenges of the coronavirus pandemic would later "fire up inflation."
About the cost of gas, Rubio appeared to refer to the Biden administration's sale of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, saying: “We are depleting our reserves. Our oil reserves do not exist to win midterms. They exist to help this country in an emergency or in the midst of a storm.”
Demings, who faces an uphill battle in Florida, which former President Donald Trump won in 2016 and 2020 and where recent polls indicate she is trailing Rubio, took the opportunity to highlight her humble upbringing as the daughter of a maid and a janitor, later serving as police officer who rose in the ranks to become chief.
“Only in America is my story possible," she said. "I just happen to believe that every person, regardless of who they are, deserves the opportunity to succeed, deserves the opportunity to make it."