ORLANDO, Fla. – As he was pressed Monday night during a heated, hour-long debate with Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy, Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said he won't abandon his office for a presidential run in 2020 if re-elected this year.
Appearing on stage together for the first time, with more than 500,000 votes already cast by mail, the Senate candidates clashed over their parties' presidential nominees, Rubio's Senate attendance record, allegations that Murphy has embellished his resume and near party-line views on gun control, immigration, the Affordable Care Act, climate change and Cuba.
The more politically polished Rubio highlighted his accomplishments as Florida House speaker and as a member of the U.S. Senate and contrasted that with Murphy's lack of signed legislation despite a reputation as being a moderate member of the U.S. House.
Rubio also said that "God willing" he would serve all six years if re-elected, something Democrats and Murphy have been hitting the incumbent on as they assert he is using the re-election bid to bolster future White House ambitions.
When pressed by ABC chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl, the moderator of the debate, Rubio replied, "I'm going to serve in the Senate for the next six years. God willing."
"I'm going to be a senator for the state of Florida for the next six years on behalf of the state of Florida," Rubio continued as Karl sought a more direct response. "You can't be senator and president at the same time."
Rubio's comment appeared to have caught Murphy off guard, as a few moments later the Democrat rattled off that Rubio still hadn't vowed to "commit to serving a full term," as he responded to a question about his own business career.
Rubio, who was criticized as being robotic during his failed presidential run after repeating a debate-prep line four times at one event, snapped back Monday, saying, "that's a line he practiced before I said what I actually said today."
Rubio and Murphy sparred about their parties' presidential nominees for nearly 15 minutes to open the debate, a topic they would re-address throughout the event, held at the University of Central Florida's Fairwinds Alumni Center.
Murphy, a two-term congressman from Jupiter trying to make up a gap in polls that has existed since Rubio jumped into the contest in June, took aim during his opening statement at Rubio's endorsement of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Murphy noted that Rubio continues to back the GOP presidential candidate despite having called him a "con man" whom he doesn't trust with the nuclear codes and despite derogatory comments by Trump about women, Mexicans, disabled people and veterans.
"If you can't stand up to Donald Trump as a candidate, how in the world are you going to stand up to him as the president of the United States?" Murphy asked. "This is about what he's done. Think of how unqualified he is. Just a couple of weeks (ago) it came out that he's violated the (Cuba) embargo, something that I know you care a lot about. And you still stand by his side."
Rubio, repeated a line he rolled out prior to the debate, that neither presidential candidate is inspirational. And that while he disagrees with a lot that Trump says and does, Rubio said he disagrees with everything from Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
"I don't trust either one of them, and the job of a U.S. senator is not to blindly follow the president because they happen to be from your own party," Rubio said.
When Murphy asked Rubio if there was anything Trump could do that would cause him to rethink his endorsement, the incumbent shot back, "Of course, like a lot of the things that Hillary Clinton stands for and does."
Before the debate, unaffiliated Senate candidate Steven Machat said he was unsuccessful in getting a state judge to open the debate to himself and four others on the ballot. Also, candidate Tony Khoury, who along with three other independents on the ballot had sued to be included in the event, held his own protest at the Fairwinds Alumni Center.
The next debate is set for Oct. 26 at Broward College.
Rubio and Murphy together agree on two debates. Murphy also accepted a Spanish language debate on Univision but wants it conducted in English.
Channel 4 and Jacksonville University's Public Policy Institute invited the candidates to debate in Northeast Florida. Rubio has agreed, but Murphy's campaign has not responded yet.
“We're lucky he agreed to two,” Rubio said. “I think he's cheating North Florida. The reason he doesn't want to debate is he doesn't want to explain he wants to release prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. He doesn't want to explain he wants to cut funding for the military and defend a record of no achievement."