ANITA KUMAR and STEVE BOUSQUET
A nation watches: The U.S. Senate race in Florida is one of the few that will determine which party has the upper hand in the Senate.
Democrat Betty Castor and Republican Mel Martinez are vying for the open U.S. Senate seat in Florida, one of the few states that will determine whether Republicans maintain a majority in the Senate.
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. In closely divided Florida, the race could come down to who can best attract independents and moderate swing voters.
Castor, 63, former state education commissioner from Tampa and University of South Florida president, easily won the Democratic primary over two South Florida rivals.
She molds herself in the image of the man she is trying to replace, retiring Democrat Sen. Bob Graham: a courtly, popular politician with bipartisan support.
Castor has tried to stake out centrist positions on abortion, national security and health care. She supports civil unions for gay couples, rather than marriage, though she opposes a constitutional ban on gay marriage. She opposes making permanent President Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and wants seniors to be able to legally buy prescription drugs from other countries.
She stresses her experience as a teacher and educator, traveling the world, working with Democrats and Republicans and helping to create jobs in the Interstate 4 corridor.
"Like Bob Graham, I will be able to cross party lines," Castor said.
Castor led what she decribed as a positive campaign during the primary, even as her leading challenger ran an aggressive race. U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch of Hollywood repeatedly accused her of mishandling the case of Sami Al-Arian, a former professor being investigated for alleged ties to terrorist groups while she was USF president. Her handling of Al-Arian, who was indicted on charges that he raised money for terrorist groups after she left USF, continues to be an issue in the general election campaign.
Castor has said she is opposed to negative campaigning but has challenged Martinez in several commercials. One ad quotes newspaper editorials calling Martinez "unprincipled and nasty" and said his "tactics raise questions about his character and leadership."
Castor's commanding lead in the primary allowed her to began planning for the November election more quickly than Martinez. Castor is supported by women senators and EMILY's List, a national political fundraising group that helps Democratic women who support abortion rights.
Martinez, 57, highlights his life story as a refugee from Cuba who arrived in the United States at age 15, separated from his parents and unable to speak a word of English. He juxtaposes those beginnings with his most recent job, as the first Cuban-American to serve in a presidential Cabinet.
Martinez, a former Democrat, is a strong supporter of President Bush's policies, especially on the war in Iraq and tax cuts. He opposes abortion rights, and opposes Congress' efforts to delay votes on President Bush's judicial nominations.
"I am who I am," Martinez said. "I think the issues are going to be delineated quite well in the general election to where I think we'll be able to draw distinctions, and move forward as to who has the greater vision for the state and for the nation."
Unlike Castor, Martinez has never run a statewide campaign. He made some rookie mistakes in the Republican primary, but he recovered and won the nomination easily. He's pinning his hopes on a president winning re-election and his own appeal to Florida's rapidly-growing Hispanic population.
A volatile mailer attacking GOP rival Bill McCollum was labeled "political hate speech" by former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, and Martinez pulled a similar TV ad off the air - on his own, he insisted, but shortly after speaking with Gov. Jeb Bush, who had asked that it be yanked.
Martinez was the Bush administration's favorite, because of his perceived ability to attract support from Hispanics - not just Cuban-Americans like himself, but non-Cuban Hispanics for whom having one of their own in the U.S. Senate is a matter of pride.
Martinez was happy to run against the front-runner, McCollum, in the primary, and he's doing it again, conceding that Castor probably has an edge in the general election.
Martinez has the advantage of an incumbent president's coattails and a slew of surrogates campaigning and raising money on his behalf, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Martinez said the race could hinge on which candidate is seen as stronger on the issues of terrorism and national security. In TV ads, Martinez has tried to depict Castor as not acting forcefully enough to remove Al-Arian from the campus.
The election, Martinez said, "is going to be about national security. We both agree on that."
But Martinez and Castor are both equally dealing with a problem beyond their control: Their race is still struggling to emerge from the shadow of four deadly hurricanes. What both had anticipated would be a 60-day campaign has shrunk to one less than half as long.
Dennis F. Bradley of Kissimmee, representing the Veterans Party of America, is also on the ballot.
U.S. senators, who serve six-year terms, must confirm presidential appointees and ratify international treaties. The annual salary is $154,700, and the job includes all kinds of perks, from free health care to a pension.REPUBLICAN
MEL MARTINEZ, 57, of Orlando, is a lawyer, a former U.S. housing secretary under President Bush and former elected chairman of Orange County. Born in Cuba, he arrived in America at age 15 under a Catholic Church refugee program, Operation Pedro Pan, and lived with foster parents in Orlando for four years until his parents arrived. He received bachelor's and law degrees from Florida State University and practiced law from 1973 to 1998, when he was elected to run Orange County. After two years, President Bush appointed him to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Martinez was president of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers in 1988, and ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1994. Martinez and his wife have three children. He is of counsel to the Akerman Senterfitt law firm. ASSETS: Home, investments. LIABILITIES: Mortgages. SOURCE OF INCOME: Law firm salary, director of La-Z-Boy Corp. WEB SITE: www.melforsenate.org
BETTY CASTOR, 63, was born and raised in Glassboro, N.J. She received a bachelor's degree in education from Glassboro State College in 1963 and a master's degree in education from the University of Miami in 1968. She worked as a teacher in Uganda and Miami-Dade County before serving four years on the Hillsborough County Commission. She served six years in the state Senate over 10 years, ending in 1986. She was Florida education commissioner from 1987 to 1993 and president of the University of South Florida from 1994 to 1999. She left USF to lead the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, a nonprofit group in Arlington, Va. She returned to Florida in 2002. She is married to Sam Bell, a former state legislator. The couple have six children from previous marriages. They reside in Tampa and Tallahassee. ASSETS: property, investments. LIABILITIES: none listed. SOURCE OF INCOME: state pension, consulting fees. WEB SITE: www.bettynet.com