President Barack Obama's Afghanistan troop withdrawal plan drew one of the few disagreements among four Republican U.S. Senate candidates in a debate Thursday.
State Sen. Mike Haridopolos separated himself from the quartet by saying he favors Obama's plan, that a drawdown "is a move that has to be done because we are stretched thin at home."
"What we're all focusing on today is the spending issue and we continue to spend in Afghanistan and Iraq … I think we need to look at home first," he said.
His three opponents — former state Rep. Adam Hasner, former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux and retired Army Col. Mike McCalister — all said Obama ignored the wishes of generals and telegraphed U.S. military plans to the enemy by announcing the withdrawals.
McCalister responded sharply after Haridopolos' comments.
"It's like a football game that you watch on TV — they call the play and they cover their face. … You don't tell the other folks what your time schedules are."
Hasner and LeMieux both accused Obama of making the decision on political rather than national security considerations.
"We need to bring our troops home but not on a timetable for the next election," LeMieux said. "It's the longest war in American history. We cannot just pull out because an election is coming."
The four presented near-apocalyptic views of the nation's problems during the debate before a group of newspaper editors, saying the nation faces demise over spending and debt.
"I am deeply concerned that America's future is in jeopardy," Hasner said. "Sometimes it's difficult to grasp, but America is not too big to fail."
LeMieux warned, "Right now your government is putting you on the path to financial destruction. … This is the first time in modern times that the government actually has the ability to destroy what it means to be an American."
They said the solutions were cutting government spending and creating more pro-business government policies.
Though not as well known as the others, McCalister surprised political insiders when he got 10 percent of the vote in the GOP primary against Rick Scott and Bill McCollum.
The winner of the Senate primary will face Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson in 2012, criticized by Hasner as "the biggest cheerleader for the Obama administration."
Nelson and Gov. Rick Scott will speak to the group today.
A small group of protestors gathered on the sidewalk across from the Vinoy Hotel in downtown St. Petersburg, site of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors gathering, chanting, "Pink slip puppets," a reference to the Republican candidates as puppets of Scott, whom they call "Pink Slip Rick" for his layoffs of state workers.
The group has announced plans to protest Scott's appearance also.
All four candidates said they oppose a national catastrophic insurance fund, which Florida political leaders of both parties have urged in the past as a way to deal with hurricane property damage.
In response to a question about denial of health insurance because of pre-existing health conditions, they all said a law preventing denials likely would pass Congress, but opposed the Obama health care reform plan, which also outlaws it.
LeMieux separated from the group by saying he opposed Scott's decision to reject a $2.4 billion federal grant to begin building a high-speed rail system in Florida.
LeMieux said he opposed the economic stimulus package that included the rail money, but he said the rail grant "was already allocated by the federal government and was going to go to some state. I thought that money should have been spent in Florida."
Hasner implicitly criticized Haridopolos for not passing a bill in the state Senate during the last session to require requiring Florida employers to use the E-verify system to check the immigration status of newly hired workers.
"E-verify is a very commonsense reform," he said. "I share a lot of Floridians' frustration that it didn't pass."
Haridopolos said the Senate passed other measures to deal with illegal immigration. In the debate, he said he wanted to concentrate on his work as state Senate president, including spending cuts to balance the state budget despite a deficit.
"I want to talk about not what I'd like to do, but what we've done in office," he said.