MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida Governor Charlie Crist attacked Republican Marco Rubio, the front-runner in the race for the state's open Senate seat, saying on Sunday he held "extreme views" in a party that has swung too far to the right.
Rubio, a Cuban-American and former state House speaker from Miami, has built up a commanding lead in the three-way contest that pits him against Crist, a former Republican now running as an independent, and Democratic Congressman Kendrick Meek in the November 2 congressional election.
An Ipsos poll published in the Miami Herald on Sunday showed 41 percent of likely voters supporting Rubio compared to 26 percent for Crist and 20 percent for Meek.
Many pundits have said Crist, 54 and a lifelong Republican until he broke with the party this year, would be competitive in a two-way race between him and Rubio. But Rubio has solidified his lead in a state hard hit by record-high unemployment and the U.S. housing crisis.
Public discontent with President Barack Obama and the ailing U.S. economy has swept Republicans into position to gain control of the U.S. House of Representatives and perhaps even pick up the 10 Democratic seats they need for a Senate majority.
The contest in Florida, an influential swing state, could help decide the balance of power in Washington. The seat Rubio looks almost certain to win was previously held by Republican Mel Martinez, who resigned from the Senate for personal reasons in August 2009. Crist appointed Republican George LeMieux as the successor to Martinez for the remaining year and a half of the Senate term.
Like other Republicans, Rubio has sought to make the vote a mandate on what he has branded the failed economic policies of Obama.
TRYING TO NARROW LEAD
Crist sought to narrow that lead, and galvanize his standing among independents, by saying in a debate with Rubio and Meek moderated by CNN on Sunday that he broke ranks with Republicans because the party had moved too far to the right.
He fervently denied leaving the party because Rubio, a favorite of the anti-Washington Tea Party movement, was sure to beat him in the Republican primary two months ago.
"The Republican Party and the right wing of that party went so far right; it's exactly why Marco Rubio stayed there and exactly the same reason that I left," Crist said.
Though he said he shares Rubio's views on some issues, Crist said his opponent also held "extreme views that I'm not comfortable with" including his stance on abortion rights and stemcell research.
"He took it to a point, so much so, that (he) said that you know people who essentially don't agree with him ought to leave the country ... That's unconscionable to me," Crist said.
"The (Republican) party represents those kind of views and that kind of intolerance," he said.
He did not elaborate. But Crist's remarks about Rubio wanting some people, such as liberal TV commentator Keith Olbermann, to leave the country, were an apparent response to a joke Rubio told months ago.
In the debate, Crist also sought to attack Rubio for personal finance issues including his alleged failure to release all statements linked to a Republican Party credit card that he used when he was leader in the Florida House.
Rubio denied any wrongdoing, however, as he appeared to bask in Sunday's endorsement of him in the Miami Herald, which highlighted his "straight talk about attacking the stratospheric federal budget deficit."
Rubio was not flawless, the newspaper said, citing his "far-right stance" on immigration and healthcare reform.
But it said Rubio, 39, had shown a passion to fix some of the things that are wrong with Washington and offered "a welcome dose of fiscal restraint" at a critical time in the nation's economy.