Early voting begins in Florida, and brawling debates continue

Gov. Charlie Crist, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek and Marco Rubio square off in a debate moderated by John Wilson, left, on Oct. 15.
Gov. Charlie Crist, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek and Marco Rubio square off in a debate moderated by John Wilson, left, on Oct. 15.

The final countdown begins.

Early voting opens today, Oct. 18, 2010, throughout Florida, and the candidates shift into overdrive for their final two-week push with several debates scheduled for the U.S. Senate and governor's races.

On Sunday, Oct. 24, the St. Petersburg Times and CNN will host a Senate debate in Tampa with Gov. Charlie Crist running as an no-party candidate, Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek and Republican Marco Rubio. PolitiFact Florida will be there live, offering Truth-O-Meter reports during the day.

The Senate candidates also debate Tuesday night, Oct. 19, at Nova Southeastern University.

The gubernatorial candidates, Republican Rick Scott and Democrat Alex Sink, debate Wednesday night, Oct. 20. Then on Monday, Oct. 25, the St. Petersburg Times and CNN will host a gubernatorial debate at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Look for PolitiFact Florida reports on all these debates. And if Friday night's Senate debate is an indication, the candidates will be pumping up the volume.

The St. Petersburg Times called that confrontation in Tampa  "brawling" and "combative" while the Orlando Sentinel described Meek as "impassioned" and said Crist and Rubio "ratcheted up their attacks on each other."

Among the topics was Social Security, an issue we've covered previously. Crist's ad attacking Rubio for wanting to raise the retirement age and cut benefits earned a Half True.

The other highlight last week was a rare two-minute campaign ad in the governor's race. PolitiFact Florida served up four – that's 4 – rulings on that ad from the Florida Democratic Party on behalf of Sink. That worked out to two Half Trues, a Mostly True and a False.

Let's review:

This creative ad was called "Fraud Files" and it focused on Scott's business record, both as founder and head of the hospital chain Columbia/CHA and as leader of  Solantic, an urgent-care medical business here in Florida.

The ad opens more like an introduction to a Dateline NBC episode than a campaign commercial, mixing a narrator's voice with short clips from TV. The first claim we checked was that "Three executives of Columbia/HCA health care corp. have been indicted," as the female narrator says. We ruled that one Half True.

Yes, three execs were indicted – four, actually – and two were convicted. But both convictions were overturned on appeal and neither man did prison time.

Next we looked at the video clips used to portray Scott's newer company, Solantic, as "also engaging in multiple forms of fraud." We rated those visuals as False. While there have been complaints about Solantic, they involved civil complaints, not criminal. So the TV ad images of flapping yellow crime-scene tape, a detective in a suit taking notes and men in police T-shirts carrying boxes out of a building are off base. None of that happened in the civil case.

Finally, we looked at the ad's claim that Scott refused to cooperate with a federal Medicare/Medicaid fraud investigation of Columbia/HCA by invoking the Fifth Amendment 75 times in a deposition. We read the depo, and 75 times Scott declined to answer questions by citing his Fifth Amendment privilege not to be a witness against himself.

We rated it Mostly True, though, because it had nothing to do with the federal fraud investigation. The deposition happened as part of a civil suit involving a contract between a Nevada communications company and Columbia/HCA.

There's one more claim in the ad we looked at: That if Scott had answered truthfully in that deposition, he would have incriminated himself. We said that's Half True, because in a civil case, invoking the Fifth Amendment isn't automatically an indication that a witness would incriminate himself.

By the way, we mentioned early voting begins today. The list of hours and sites for each county is available at the Florida Division of Elections website.