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Election 2004

Bitter Senate battle spins toward close

After months of turmoil, Betty Castor and Mel Martinez remain in a tight race to replace Bob Graham.

By STEVE BOUSQUET and ANITA KUMAR
Published October 31, 2004

One year ago this week, Bob Graham stood at the edge of a high school running track in Tallahassee and made an announcement that would release a torrent of political ambition.

After keeping everyone in suspense for weeks, Graham said he would not seek a fourth term in the U.S. Senate.

It's been a bizarre trip from there.

Candidates got in, then dropped out. Two crowded primaries featured a combined dozen candidates, including a businessman who spent millions of his own money and a reclusive socialite who never made a campaign appearance before she exited the race.

The Senate hopefuls struggled to escape the long shadow of the high-profile presidential election. Then four hurricanes in six weeks virtually shut down campaigning. For the past seven weeks, TV airwaves from Miami to Pensacola have been cluttered with negative TV ads.

Two major candidates remain: Republican Mel Martinez and Democrat Betty Castor.

Polls show the race is deadlocked. A minor-party candidate who has received little attention, Dennis Bradley, 63, of the Veterans Party of America, could be a spoiler.

The closing weeks have been marked by harsh rhetoric from both sides, with Castor attacking Martinez's integrity and Martinez questioning Castor's judgment. Voters are left to wonder how a race between two likable, mild-mannered candidates turned so ugly.

"I think it's unfortunate that the campaign wasn't focused on things that are important to Floridians," Graham said. "Much of the campaign has been on negative issues that are not part of the normal responsibilities of a U.S. Senator."

* * *

The moderate, popular Graham was one of four Southern Democrats who chose to retire. Their four states - Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina - are known as "the string of pearls" to Republicans eager to tighten their grip on the South.

By most accounts, Georgia and South Carolina are likely to shift to the Republican column Tuesday, and the outcome is less clear in North Carolina.

That leaves Florida, the nation's biggest battleground state.

Martinez, 58, the last candidate to enter the race, aims to finish first. Recruited to run by the White House and Washington insiders who saw him as a magnet for Hispanic votes, he would be the nation's first Cuban-American senator, after only five years of experience in two major government positions.

A victory by Castor, 63, would complete an astounding political comeback and help Democrats maintain some clout in a state shifting Republican. The educator from Tampa last ran for office 14 years ago, a lifetime in fast-growing Florida. But she adapted to modern campaigning with an Internet-driven machine complete with a BettyNet, Bettyheads and a BettyBlog.

"It's obviously a tight race," said U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Lake Worth, who dropped out of the race in September 2003, citing his father's failing health. His decision helped make Martinez's candidacy possible.

The campaign's tone reflects the tightness of the race, the high national stakes and the widely-held view by political experts that negative ads work. Both candidates broke an early promise to run positive campaigns.

Martinez has raised $11-million; Castor, about $10-million. Most of the money has paid for TV ads that have been magnified by millions more from campaign committees from both parties and by EMILY's List, a group that helps Democratic women such as Castor who support abortion rights.

Along the way, Martinez labeled a Republican rival, former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, an ally of "the radical homosexual lobby." That prompted the St. Petersburg Times to withdraw its editorial support of Martinez, the first time the newspaper had taken the step in a major race.

Voters also witnessed the power of so-called 527 groups for the first time.

A group set up under that section of the tax code, run by a friend and supporter of Democratic Senate candidate Peter Deutsch, used newspaper ads and direct mailers to attack Castor's handling of Sami Al-Arian, a professor under investigation for terrorist ties when she was president of the University of South Florida.

The ads by the American Democracy Project, coupled with Deutsch's criticism of Castor, helped set the tone for the general election.

"She needs to answer the questions," Deutsch said in a TV debate in late August. "If she doesn't answer, we're going to have a hard time holding the seat if she is the nominee."

As the race enters its final 48 hours, all that seems certain is that the next U.S. senator from Florida will be determined by the turnout in the race for the White House. An overwhelming Republican turnout benefits Martinez, and a surge of Democratic voters helps Castor.

* * *

Martinez's campaign has focused on his storybook biography. He has worn his immigrant status like a badge of honor, cruising the I-4 corridor in a bus caravan dubbed the "American Dream Tour" and airing TV ads showing grainy black-and-white home-movie footage of his flight from Cuba as a teenager.

For weeks he ran TV ads filled with footage of President Bush, who chose him to run the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Martinez campaign estimates it spent $4-million on those ads.

Week after week, Martinez's name recognition slowly climbed upward as McCollum's stagnated. Martinez won the nomination by 14 percentage points, thanks in part to an overwhelming margin in heavily-Hispanic Miami-Dade.

In Miami's Little Havana, Martinez is treated like a conquering hero. Crowds mob him, grab his shirt and hug him, demanding to be photographed with him.

Resting in his campaign bus after an emotional Miami rally the night before he won the nomination, Martinez said: "It's very emotional to see the outpouring of love, affection, support, passion. It's just overwhelming, and I hope I'm deserving of it."

This is Martinez's first statewide race and the inexperience showed. His moderate, good-guy image has taken a hit due to some of his negative TV ads, WFLA-Channel 8 accused Martinez of "egregiously" using a snippet of Castor out of context from a TV debate it sponsored.

Martinez, a former trial lawyer who started after-school programs as Orange County's elected Chairman, moved to the right, pushing for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and opposing expansion of stem cell research.

He had to apologize to McCollum to get his endorsement. He reshuffled his campaign staff and demanded to see all ads before they ran.

* * *

Castor had considered running for governor or senator from time to time in her three decades of politics, but there always seemed to be something in the way.

She returned to Florida in 2002 and immersed herself in state politics. She says she grew angry at decisions made by the Republican-controlled Legislature, especially concerning education. The breaking point came when legislators voted to reduce the number of credits a student needed to graduate from high school.

"It was one of the triggers," Castor said. "It really got the juices going."

In May 2003, Castor assembled an exploratory campaign to see if she could amass support and money. One of the first calls she made was to EMILY's List.

After securing the group's backing, EMILY's List helped Castor find a new campaign manager, assigned staffers to assist with publicity, finance and opposition research and, most importantly, it bundled money from donors all across the United States.

When she entered the race a month later, Deutsch and Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas had been running for months. She predicted they would split the South Florida vote and she could appeal to moderate Democrats in central and north Florida.

But by June, Castor was regularly being questioned about Al-Arian.

Castor stuck to her message and her issues the entire primary race. She staked out centrist positions on abortion, national security and health care while Deutsch and Penelas sought support from the party's liberal base.

With a commanding lead in the polls as the Aug. 31 primary drew near, Castor began planning for the November election faster than Martinez. She embarked on a marathon fundraising tour in September and October, collecting checks out of state, chasing the $10-million she estimates she needs to win.

"Florida has become much more of a two-party system," Castor said recently. "There was a time you could vote for schools and vote for education and be really proud of it. You might be labeled someone who is a liberal."

Castor became the nominee, with ease. But as Deutsch predicted, the Democrats are having a hard time holding a seat that has been theirs since Graham ousted Republican Paula Hawkins in 1986.

Times researcher Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report.

[Last modified October 31, 2004, 00:55:19]


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