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Panhandle, president drive Martinez's win

Heavy support in North Florida and a boost from President Bush nudged Mel Martinez past U.S. Senate rival Betty Castor.

Published November 3, 2004

ORLANDO - Mel Martinez made political history with help from presidential coattails, conservatives and Cuban-Americans. A compelling story line helped, too.

As Martinez basked in the glow of victory Wednesday as Florida's U.S. senator-elect, Betty Castor conceded defeat. A new Republican star is on the rise, one with a Cuban accent, while another Florida Democrat exits the political stage for good.

Martinez fielded congratulatory calls from President Bush and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and promised to start the healing process to bury the memories of an ugly race. The most powerful man in the Senate, majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, flew to Orlando to thank him.

"He is a man we all know embodies the American dream," said Frist, R-Tennessee, "a man who understands the value of freedom because he is one who has lived part of his life without it."

Martinez plans to tour Orlando, Miami and Tampa today. He said he wants to prove to people that even though he was on both ends of a nasty TV ad campaign and opposed a popular amendment to increase the minimum wage, he is compassionate and caring.

"I think as people get to know me, and I hope as they get to know me, that they'll get to know the full measure of who I am," Martinez said, "and then as they do, that they'll come to work with me in a way that will allow me to represent them in a very effective way."

In Tampa, Castor telephoned Martinez to offer her congratulations, then conceded publicly.

"We would like to have every vote counted in this election," Castor said. "However, if every vote is counted, we don't think it would be any different."

After three decades in politics, the 63-year-old Castor said she had no plans to run for governor or any other elected office.

Castor could not overcome the power of the Bush brothers, the influence of Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, and an electorate jittery about war and terrorism.

"Betty ran against the White House candidate. He was hand-picked by Karl Rove and they put everything they could in it," said Doug Hattaway, a Castor strategist. "It's remarkable that Martinez barely eked out a victory."

She also was reminded of an age-old lesson in Florida politics: A Democrat cannot win statewide without making friends in North Florida towns like Blountstown, Chipley and Cross City. Castor spent less time and money in North Florida than Martinez.

Martinez, the first Cuban-American to reach the U.S. Senate, carried 40 of Florida's 67 counties Tuesday, including 17 that Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson carried four years ago.

In the end, the Republican strategy in Florida worked. GOP strategists recruited Martinez in the hope that he would turn on a spigot of Hispanic votes, especially along the critical Interstate 4 corridor.

"Latinos realize they matter," said Zulma Velez-Estrada, director of the Que Nada Nos Detenga voter registration effort (Let Nothing Stop Us), sponsored by Puerto Rico.

In her 14 years in Central Florida, Castore said she had never seen such a high turnout in the Latino community. "There were so many Puerto Ricans voting. I was so proud," she said.

Castor spent little time in the Panhandle, with its crackerboard churches, barbecue stands and country-music stations. On a last-minute swing to Panhandle towns like Gulf Breeze last weekend, crowds were smaller than expected.

The breeze was already blowing in Martinez's direction.

Castor pollster Dave Beattie cited three problems for the Democrat.

She needed 40 percent of the vote across the Panhandle to win the state, and she got about 30 percent there where turnout was higher than she expected. Second, she didn't carry Hillsborough by as much as she needed. Third, the turnout was less in areas where Castor needed huge victory margins, such as Broward and Palm Beach.

Miami-Dade went for Castor, but just barely. Unofficial returns, not including absentees, showed Castor ahead by about 8,500 votes. Nelson won the county by 40,000 votes in 2000.

Nelson, who campaigned for Castor, said Florida's Senate race boiled down to turnout.

"The one who had the better turnout was going to win the president and the Senate," he said. "The Democratic turnout wasn't as good as the Republican turnout."

In the most conservative pockets of Florida, voters preferred a conservative, up-from-the-bootstraps Cuban immigrant over an opponent who seemed the face of moderation: a woman from Tampa who has spent a career in education.

Martinez's media adviser said his personal story made a big difference.

"His story - it was a way for people to feel good about America," said Stuart Stevens, who crafted TV ads with grainy footage of Martinez arriving in America in 1962 and what sounded like an endorsement from President Bush, complete with dubbed-in applause.

The Martinez strongholds included medium-sized counties such as Brevard and Polk and small counties like Dixie, Jackson and Taylor, places where Nelson won in 2000 by showing up in a pair of cowboy boots and talking about his Panhandle ancestors and his brief tour as an astronaut.

Not quite a man in uniform, but close.

The Martinez areas also included Orange, where he served as nonpartisan county chairman before joining President Bush's Cabinet in 2001. Nelson carried Orange by 21,000 votes, and Castor lost the county in the heart of the I-4 corridor by less than 1,000 votes.

As he met Martinez at an airport hangar Wednesday, Frist handed Martinez a baseball cap emblazoned with the words "Class of 2005."

It's no coincidence that Frist is thinking of seeking the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, and the endorsement of America's first Cuban-American senator wouldn't hurt.

- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

[Last modified November 3, 2004, 19:44:49]

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