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Election 2004

U.S. Senate: Martinez and Castor coast into Senate fight

While the Democratic rout was expected, the Republican race was a surprise and sets up a match of opposites.

Published September 1, 2004

Betty Castor swamped her Democratic U.S. Senate rivals Tuesday while Mel Martinez clinched the Republican nomination with surprising ease, setting up a general election battle that mirrors the presidential campaign.

Castor, a former state education commissioner, positioned herself in the centrist tradition of retiring Sen. Bob Graham. Martinez closely linked his political fortunes to President Bush, who plucked him from the chairmanship of Orange County to be his housing secretary.

Now, as their philosophical differences emerge, Castor and Martinez can count on heavy national backing. Both parties are seeking to control the Senate, where Republicans hold a 51-48 advantage with one independent.

And the White House sees Martinez as a key to winning Florida by energizing Hispanic voters who would likely back Bush.

"Our campaign offers more than empty promises," Castor told supporters at the Italian Club in Ybor City. "I have a proven record serving all the people of Florida, working across party lines and getting real results."

As Martinez walked on stage at the Embassy Suites hotel in downtown Orlando, more than 200 supporters chanted "Mel! Mel! Mel!"'

"This is a really improbable journey, one that dreams are made of," Martinez said. "The differences between me and the other Republican candidates were not very big. The differences between me and Betty Castor are great."

The Republican result marked the second time former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum has failed in his dream to win a Senate seat. At his headquarters in Orlando, some staffers cried but the candidate, with his wife, Ingrid, alongside, seemed at peace.

"Tonight, the election hasn't gone the way we wanted it to," McCollum said after speaking by phone with Martinez. After declaring Monday that he could not endorse Martinez, McCollum urged Republicans to unify because "the leadership of President George W. Bush is absolutely essential."

Castor, 62, led her three Democratic opponents from the start, but her margin of victory was greater than polls predicted. She led everywhere but South Florida, home to her leading rivals, U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas.

Martinez, 57, trailed McCollum for months but surged ahead in the closing weeks with TV ads featuring the president. The primary ended with a volley of negative ads.

The Martinez victory followed a White House script. The Cuban-born Martinez was heavily recruited by leading Republican senators to run for the seat, and Republican strategists believe Martinez can help Bush's re-election chances by mobilizing Hispanic voters in Miami and along the I-4 corridor.

Martinez overwhelmed his seven opponents in Miami-Dade, where Hispanics account for two-thirds of Republican voters.

Coral Gables business executive Doug Gallagher ran a distant third, despite spending about $6.5-million of his own money and flooding airwaves with glitzy ads.

Castor and Martinez already have started planning for the Nov. 2 election.

Martinez plans a bus tour across North Florida with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Castor expects she will need $10-million and has scheduled a half-dozen out-of-state fundraisers, including in Chicago and California.

Castor and Martinez disagree on virtually every issue, from abortion to Cuba policy to tax cuts to President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq.

Today, while Martinez works on a prime-time Thursday speech to the Republican National Convention, Castor will share the stage with Graham and Sen. Bill Nelson at an American Legion post in Tampa. A Democratic unity rally with Deutsch and Penelas is scheduled for Thursday.

Martinez poured $3-million into TV ads highlighting his close ties to the president and his story of escaping Castro's Cuba and being separated from parents.

Castor shares Democrat John Kerry's views on the war, and like him has emphasized the need for better health care. Martinez is a loyal supporter of the Bush agenda, such as the need to make his tax cuts permanent and to have yes-or-no Senate votes on nominees to federal judgeships.

Her leading challenger, Deutsch, ran a characteristically aggressive race, accusing Castor of mishandling the case of Sami Al-Arian, a former USF professor later indicted on terrorism charges. But his combative style repelled some voters, even in his home county of Broward.

"When we started this campaign 20 months ago, we had a plan to offer to the people of Florida," Deutsch told supporters Tuesday at a beachfront bar in Fort Lauderdale after losing for the first time. "We offered it to the people of Florida, and at least at this point in time, they did not take it."

Castor modeled herself after Graham, a courtly, popular moderate who never lost a race in a four-decade career. She staked out centrist positions on abortion, national security and health care while Deutsch and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas sought support from the party's liberal base.

Martinez's advisers believe they clinched victory a week ago when they engineered a character attack by social conservatives on McCollum as "anti-family" and a political opportunist who can't be trusted.

The tone quickly went downhill from there.

As McCollum tried to deflect those charges, Martinez pounded the message home to primary voters with a mailer accusing McCollum of supporting "the radical homosexual lobby." A Martinez TV ad repeated the theme, but he took it off the air on Saturday after talking with Gov. Jeb Bush.

McCollum and his campaign chairman, former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, condemned Martinez for a campaign laced with "hatred" and "bigotry."

The question now for Martinez is how to heal the divisions within the Republican Party, as he tries to move to the political center, where most statewide elections in Florida are won.

Times staff writers Joni James, David Karp and Curtis Krueger contributed to this report.

[Last modified August 31, 2004, 23:41:18]

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