ORLANDO - Florida's closely contested U.S. Senate race was too close to call early today, with Republican Mel Martinez clinging to a slim lead over Democrat Betty Castor with more than 6.5-million votes counted.
Thousands of absentees ballots remain to be counted, and some counties released only partial returns, leaving open the possibility that either candidate could pull out a victory.
But as Martinez's slim lead widened early this morning, talk of a court battle was in the air.
Castor hired lawyer Eric Kleinfeld of Washington and was considering challenging the results based on alleged irregularities in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, three Castor strongholds.
The Castor campaign cited reports of inadequate handicap access, touch screen machines removed from polling places midday and phone calls to Democratic voters falsely claiming that their precincts had been changed.
Castor hired Kleinfeld, chief counsel to the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign, after learning that Martinez had hired a lawyer who was in touch with elections supervisors throughout the evening and was planning a legal challenge, said Castor campaign spokesman Dan McLaughlin.
But the Martinez campaign said it has been a year since it hired Benjamin Ginsberg, a Washington election law expert and Republican adviser who played a central role in the 2000 Florida recount. Martinez spokesmen denied he planned to challenge the results.
The closeness of the race created the possibility that Dennis Bradley of the Veterans Party of America could be a Ralph Nader-like spoiler.
Bradley's campaign was virtually nonexistent, but he was receiving 2.3 percent of the vote, with larger percentages in Citrus, Hernando and other counties. The Castor campaign, however, assumed Bradley's support would come at Martinez's expense.
The atmosphere at the Castor campaign party at the Wyndham Westshore hotel in Tampa swung wildly as the night wore on. At first ebullient, by early this morning the party had ended and the mood had deflated as Martinez opened up a lead.
Castor felt so confident at 10:30 p.m. that her staff was privately declaring victory, even as Martinez was slightly ahead. Castor pollster Dave Beattie said Castor was waiting for Martinez to concede.
Castor addressed her supporters at 11 p.m. but stopped short of declaring victory. "This is a close race. We may be here a little bit longer tonight," Castor said. She then ticked off the counties where she was ahead.
Martinez huddled with advisers early this morning in his room at the Embassy Suites in downtown Orlando. His campaign chairman, Attorney General Charlie Crist, had little comment.
"We don't know for sure, but it sure looks good," Crist said early today. "The later it got, the better it got."
Early this morning, Martinez spokeswoman Jennifer Coxe said: "We understand that it's hard to lose. We have every confidence that it's fair. People's ballots have been counted ... we have confidence in the election system."
Both campaigns were scrambling to calculate their chances of pulling out a victory by figuring out which counties have not yet tabulated their absentee ballots.
Castor was beating Martinez in his home county of Orange, and she held comfortable leads in South Florida and in Tampa Bay, her home base. But Martinez's showing in Republican counties made the race too close to call, though Castor expressed confidence throughout the night.
The lack of a decisive result kept one of the nation's most closely watched Senate races in suspension, for another day at least.
Castor, 63, a former University of South Florida president and state education commissioner, would be the second woman senator in Florida's history.
Martinez, 58, would be the first Cuban-American senator in U.S. history. He declined to concede but sounded less confident than his opponent. "In terms of comfort, I'm biting my nails and it's jittery," Martinez said. "It feels funny. It's a tight race."
A victory by Martinez would be a historic achievement for Hispanics, marking the first time a Cuban-American had won a Senate seat. Martinez made his autobiography a central part of his campaign, including his flight from Fidel Castro's Cuba at age 15 to settle with foster parents in Orlando.
A Castor victory would mark a major comeback for a politician who had not run for office in 14 years and who endured a barrage of TV ads that portrayed her as a tax-and-spend liberal soft on terrorism. But Castor, who said she thought negative campaigning was morally wrong, fought back with a ferocity she rarely displayed in the past.
Both campaigns thought the winner would depend on which presidential candidate won Florida.
Exit polls provided some clues to the strengths of each candidate.
Martinez performed better with men, Hispanics, wealthier voters and people who attend church regularly. Of the one-third of those voters who called themselves conservatives, Martinez was favored, 81 percent to 19 percent, and of those who considered terrorism the biggest issue, Martinez was favored by a 4-to-1 margin.
Reflecting the parallel with the presidential race, Martinez was overwhelmingly popular among voters who supported President Bush.
Castor won 59 percent of voters who described themselves as moderates, the largest bloc of voters at 47 percent. Castor was the overwhelming choice of liberals and Martinez the overwhelming choice of conservatives.
Castor also was favored by younger voters, women and independents, exit polls showed. First-time voters preferred Castor over Martinez 56 to 43 percent, and voters in the youngest age group, 18 to 29, favored Castor 59 percent to 40 percent.
But Martinez drew voters who thought taxes, terrorism and moral values were important - all issues he pressed during the campaign.
A Castor win would be a morale boost for Florida Democrats, who have watched their power evaporate in recent years.
But a Martinez victory would further cement the GOP's hold on Florida, where Democrats outnumber Republicans even as Republicans control the governor's mansion, the Cabinet, both houses of the Legislature and two-thirds of the 25 seats in the state's congressional delegation.
Castor presented herself as a centrist in the mold of Bob Graham, the popular senator they battled to replace.
Washington Republicans saw Martinez's Cuban-American heritage and inspiring life story as a way of boosting Hispanic turnout and improving the president's chances. He focused much of his campaign on attacking Castor's handling of a suspected case of terrorism on the USF campus in the 1990s and, late in the campaign, labeling her a tax-and-spend liberal.
Castor's strategy was to stake out the coveted middle ground that is often decisive in state elections.
She stuck to centrist themes throughout the campaign, supporting expanded health care, abortion rights and a higher minimum wage and opposing Bush's tax cuts. She said she would have voted against the war in Iraq if she knew that no weapons of mass destruction existed, a statement Martinez tried to turn against her.
Martinez supported the war in Iraq, without reservation. He also opposed abortion in all cases except to save a mother's life, opposed an increase in the minimum wage and favored a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
Exit polls showed that more voters, 23 percent, considered terrorism the No. 1 issue in the presidential race, with the war in Iraq and moral values tied for second. Martinez was favored by those voters. Castor did best among voters who thought education, health care and the economy and jobs were more important.
Martinez was the clear favorite of Hispanics, exit polls showed, but his margin of victory with that group was not high enough to compensate for his weaknesses with women, independents and first-time voters.
Both candidates and their parties spent millions of dollars on hard-edged TV ads focusing on terrorism, taxes and integrity. The ads turned off many voters.
Martinez hinted Tuesday he would have preferred to run a more positive campaign. "It is not who I am," Martinez said. "It does not reflect what I would like to put out there."
Times staff writers Tamara Lush and Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.