ORLANDO - Republican Mel Martinez declared victory over Democrat Betty Castor early today in his quest to become the first Cuban-American elected to the U.S. Senate.
"I'm humbled to be your next United States senator," Martinez told cheering supporters at a downtown Orlando hotel about 1:15 a.m.
With more than 6.5-million votes cast, Martinez led Castor by just under 1 percent.
Riding a massive Republican get-out-the-effort and providing President Bush some coattails of his own, Martinez siphoned thousands of Democratic Hispanic votes from Castor.
But with thousands of absentee ballots still to be counted and some counties releasing only partial returns, Castor refused to concede. Her campaign was surprised when Martinez declared victory.
"I believe it is premature for anyone to declare victory until every vote is counted," Castor said minutes after Martinez's victory speech. "I think that's what people want."
As Martinez's slim lead widened early this morning, the possibility of a court battle loomed.
Castor hired 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.
A Castor spokesman said she hired Eric 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.
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 denied any plans to challenge the results. "I'm not even thinking about it," he said.
Dennis Bradley of the Veterans Party of America turned out to be a possible spoiler.
Bradley's campaign was virtually nonexistent, but he did better than polls predicted. The Castor campaign assumed Bradley's support would come at Martinez's expense, but his strongest showing was around Tampa Bay, Castor's home base.
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. 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."
Martinez campaign 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, was vying to be the second woman senator in Florida's history.
Martinez, 58, would be the first Cuban-American senator in U.S. history.
Earlier in the evening, with exit polls showing Castor leading, Martinez 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."
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.
Castor had not for office in 14 years and endured a barrage of TV ads that portrayed her as a tax-and-spend liberal soft on terrorism. After declaring negative campaigning morally wrong, Castor fought back with a ferocity she rarely displayed in the past.
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 defeat would be yet another sign of decline for Florida Democrats, who have watched their power evaporate in recent years.
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 statewide 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.
But Castor did best among voters who thought education, health care and the economy and jobs were more important.
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.