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Bitterness boils over at GOP debate

The rivalry between U.S. Senate candidates Bill McCollum and Mel Martinez takes a nastier turn during a live TV debate.

STEVE BOUSQUET
Published August 28, 2004

TAMPA - It was billed as a debate. But it was more like the Friday night fights.

A visibly angry Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bill McCollum confronted rival Mel Martinez in a live statewide TV debate Friday, saying Martinez's "despicable" tactics make him "unfit to serve in the United States Senate."

The bitterness boiled over in a Tampa TV studio after the program ended, with McCollum telling reporters that he would not support Martinez if he were to win Tuesday's primary unless Martinez apologized.

"I would not support him to be a United States senator," McCollum said.

Polls show that McCollum and Martinez are in a close duel for the Republican nomination.

During the debate, McCollum dramatically pulled a new Martinez flier out of his suit coat pocket, saying it "accuses me of catering to the radical homosexual lobby."

"That is just despicable," he told Martinez. "It's nasty. It's not true. It's absolutely incorrect."

McCollum demanded that Martinez condemn the flier and apologize, but Martinez did neither. Instead, President Bush's former housing secretary said: "Words were used that were not mine, and were not of my choosing. Those words were spoken by others."

Only afterward, after the TV cameras were off, did Martinez repudiate the remarks by one of his supporters, John Stemberger of Florida Family Focus.

Martinez said of Stemberger's words, "I wouldn't be in favor of that kind of rhetoric."

Stemberger was one of seven prominent social conservatives who took part in a conference call arranged by the Martinez campaign last Tuesday to criticize McCollum's stands on social issues. Martinez did not participate in the call.

Martinez acknowledged after the debate that he did not review the flier or see its contents before it went out, even though the literature says "paid for by Martinez for Senate."

The flier, in black with white and green lettering, was sent to conservatives across the state just days before Tuesday's winner-take-all primary in which McCollum and Martinez are locked in a bitter struggle for the support of conservatives.

The flier asks "Can conservatives count on Bill McCollum?" and cites McCollum's stands on hate crimes and expanded stem cell research. The text appears to attribute words to McCollum that he says he never said. The flier says he took positions on some issues "to appease certain political constituencies, including the radical homosexual lobby."

But the flier revives 4-year-old quotes, one from a gay newspaper in Washington, praising McCollum for backing legislation in Congress that increased penalties against people who commit hate crimes agains gays and lesbians, among other groups. Funded by Martinez's campaign, the flier quotes a 2000 remark by a leader of the Traditional Values Coalition calling McCollum "the new darling of the homosexual extremists."

The mailer urges readers to visit a Web site, traditionalvalues.org.

The Martinez campaign has used McCollum's position on embryonic stem cell research to cast him as someone who supports liberal, antifamily issues.

McCollum supports letting scientists study leftover embryos that would otherwise be discarded, but he said he does not agree with research that takes a life. Martinez supports President Bush's ban on federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells.

"You and I are both pro-life," McCollum said.

The tension between McCollum and Martinez has been building for months.

Martinez said during the debate that he has been the target for months of "personal attacks" by McCollum for his past work as a trial lawyer and as a supporter of Democratic candidates, some of which compared Martinez to Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards.

Martinez's campaign called the criticism of McCollum "fair game."

The rest of the hour was tame by comparison.

All five Republicans agreed that the Iraq war was the right decision, even though none of the weapons of mass destruction the president cited to justify the war have been found. All five oppose a proposal to raise Florida's minimum wage to $6.15 an hour.

Lawyer Larry Klayman said he would have a litmus test for judges on abortion and that he favors eliminating public funding for Planned Parenthood. He ridiculed his rivals as politicians and lumped in Doug Gallagher with McCollum and Martinez, calling them "the MGM brothers."

Friday's forum came at a tense time.

Five days before the primary, polls showed McCollum's lead has withered and that he is in a dead heat with Martinez.

Both men sense an extremely close race, a result many in Florida fear because of anxiety over new touch-screen voting machines and memories of the 2000 presidential recount.

McCollum, 60, is seeking a return to Capitol Hill after 20 years in Congress. He lost the 2000 Senate race to Democrat Bill Nelson in 2000 and is running on his experience and knowledge about terrorism threats.

Martinez, 57, has attached himself tightly to his former boss, President Bush. He entered the race months after McCollum, but he enjoys the support of key senators and has won endorsements from key conservative groups such as the National Right to Life PAC.

Gallagher, 55, of Coral Gables, is spending his personal fortune in record amounts for a Florida campaign. He has poured $6.3-million into a long-shot bid as an outsider calling for new blood in Washington. His TV ads lampoon McCollum and Martinez as "the M&M boys."

But Gallagher's efforts have faltered. He changed his strategy on Friday and went back to positive TV ads about his accomplishments in business and support for diabetes research, rather than jabbing at his opponents, Martinez and McCollum. Friday's debate originated from the studios of WEDU-Ch. 3 in Tampa and was broadcast live on 11 other public TV and radio stations statewide. It will be rebroadcast on TV at 6 p.m. Sunday, preceded by a one-hour Democratic Senate debate that aired Thursday.

Times staff writers Curtis Krueger and Joni James contributed to this report, which material from the Associated Press.

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