As they prepare for their final televised debate tonight, Republican Mel Martinez and Democrat Betty Castor are deadlocked in their fight for Florida's open U.S. Senate seat, a new poll shows.
Martinez and Castor each are favored by 44 percent of likely voters, with 10 percent undecided, the St. Petersburg Times /Miami Herald poll found. Little-known Dennis Bradley of the Veterans Party has 2 percent.
The survey shows the race is as unpredictable today as it was a year ago, before voters began paying attention to the candidates.
The outcome will depend largely on the outcome of the presidential campaign in Florida, pollsters said. That race is also dead even, the poll found.
"Castor or Martinez will probably have to wait to see if Bush or Kerry is victorious at the top of the ticket to know if they will be successful," said Kellyanne Conway of the Polling Company.
With so many voters in the Senate race still undecided, "I fully expect that the Senate outcome will be driven by the success of the Republican or Democratic candidate for president's get-out-the-vote program," said pollster Rob Schroth.
The poll was conducted by phone Oct. 19-21 by Schroth & Associates, whose political clients are Democrats, and the Polling Company, a Republican firm. The statewide survey of 800 people who identified themselves as likely voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Florida voters said fighting terrorism and the war in Iraq are the top issues in the Senate race, just as in the presidential race.
Voters in followup interviews repeatedly cited Castor's handling of Sami Al-Arian, a terrorist suspect who was a tenured professor at the University of South Florida when Castor was USF president. She placed Al-Arian on paid administrative leave for two years, but said she did not have sufficient evidence to fire him.
Ken Ongemach, 66, of North Tampa, a retired engineer and registered independent, said he would vote for Martinez, largely because of concerns about Al-Arian. "I just think Martinez is the stronger of the two," Ongemach said. "Yeah, she did do something about this guy, eventually. Don't get me wrong. In local politics, I liked her, but she tends to sit back and see how the wind's blowing for too long."
Democrat Kenneth Grizzle, 68, of Valrico, supported Castor even before last week's TV debate when, he said, "she trashed him, bad, bad, bad."
Grizzle criticized Martinez's opposition to raising the minimum wage. "I can't understand how he grew up as a minority and doesn't want a minimum wage," he said.
Republican Judith Reteneller, 54, a mother of two from South Tampa, said she knew little about Martinez, but she won't support Castor. Reteneller, who has a child attending USF, said of Castor: "I'll say this. There's a lot of room for improvement. How much of that was her fault I don't know. I will definitely vote for Martinez."
Margaret Sowka, 75, of Sarasota, a Democrat, watched last week's TV debate and concluded: "She's the better qualified of the two."
She disliked Martinez's emphasis on Al-Arian. "He was pushing too far on something that isn't germane to the election," Sowka said. "We felt she did the right thing pertaining to what the rules were."
The battle to replace retiring Democrat Bob Graham is one of the most closely watched Senate contests of 2004, but it was disrupted by a string of four deadly hurricanes. Since late September, both candidates have bombarded the airwaves with hard-hitting TV ads, many focused on Al-Arian.
Castor, a former state education commissioner, has modeled herself after Graham, a moderate who never lost a race in a four-decade career.
While staking out centrist positions on national security and health care, she has raised $4-million for the general election with the help of EMILY's List, a fundraising group that supports Democratic women who favor abortion rights.
Martinez, a former U.S. housing secretary and Orange County chairman, has closely aligned himself with President Bush, with whom he agrees on most issues, from the war in Iraq to tax cuts to limits on stem cell research and opposition to abortion. He would be the first Cuban-American to serve in the U.S. Senate.
The poll shows Martinez draws most of his support from the same groups as President Bush, including voters ages 35 to 49, voters in North Florida and the Panhandle, and men under 50.
Martinez holds an overwhelming advantage over Castor among Hispanic voters, 54 percent to 38 percent. He even did better among Hispanics in the poll than President Bush, who got 34 percent of Hispanic votes.
The margin of error for the Hispanic voter sample is 11 percent.
Working women, African-Americans, independents and South Florida voters favor Castor.
Pollster Conway said undecided voters could shift to Castor in greater numbers than to Martinez, because undecideds are disproportionately women and more than one-third live in South Florida.
Martinez has 17 percent support among black voters, the poll found, while Castor has 66 percent.
The race is so close, the poll concluded, that neither candidate holds an overwhelming advantage in any geographic region, except for one: Martinez has a lopsided lead in North Florida and the Panhandle (55 percent to 33 percent).
Even their home regions are divided.
Martinez, who is from Orlando, has 44 percent in Central Florida to Castor's 43 percent. Bradley, of Kissimmee, draws 5 percent there, his best showing in the state.
Castor, from Tampa, has 48 percent in the Tampa Bay area, which she expects to carry. Martinez has 45 percent.
Pinellas County voters favored Martinez by 50 percent to 41 percent, while voters in Hillsborough County preferred Castor, 54 percent to 42 percent. Castor is a former state senator from Tampa and a former Hillsborough County commissioner.
Martinez and Castor will meet in a televised debate at 7 p.m. today that is sponsored by the Miami Herald and Miami's WFOR-TV and broadcast on Florida's CBS affiliates, including WTSP-Ch. 10.
Both candidates also have drawn a parade of surrogates to Florida to help on their behalf. Martinez was featured at a Republican rally for President Bush at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville on Saturday. Castor introduced Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry at a rally in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday.
-- Times staff writer Joni James contributed to this report.