"Working together for a free Cuba"




Posted on Wed, Sep. 01, 2004

2 win in walk, face tough race.
By Beth Reinhard and Marc Caputo

Betty Castor and Mel Martinez will battle for Sen. Bob Graham's U.S. Senate seat.

In a battle for Sen. Bob Graham's seat, Democrats picked a former state education commissioner and Republicans chose a former U.S. housing secretary.

Mel Martinez scrapped and scraped his way to a surprisingly easy victory Tuesday in the bare-knuckle Republican U.S. Senate primary, while Democrat Betty Castor surprised no one by sauntering into her party's nomination.

Martinez defied pollsters who predicted a dead-even race as he enthralled voters with a faith-based, only-in-America story of a Cuban refugee who went on to work in the White House.

But his last-minute barrage of attacks against main rival Bill McCollum began to undermine his nice-guy image.

It may have been unnecessary -- judging by his comfortable margin of victory -- and might prove damaging in a general election campaign.

McCollum withheld his endorsement Tuesday night.

And Martinez's conservative views on gay rights and abortion leave Castor and her allies with plenty of potentially jarring quotes that could be swiftly turned into Democratic campaign propaganda.


In contrast to Martinez, Castor ran a careful, mainstream campaign that avoided divisive social issues and focused on feel-good topics like improving healthcare and schools. Florida's former education commissioner picked up fundraising steam and enjoyed gangbuster support from Emily's List, a Democratic fundraising organization that helps elect women who favor abortion rights.

''I will fight for the values that unite us, and I will never stand for the divisive politics that pit one American against another,'' Castor told several hundred jubilant supporters at the grandiose century-old Italian Club in Tampa. She was introduced by the incumbent himself, Sen. Bob Graham.

Martinez will be a formidable foe. President Bush's former housing secretary will bask in the White House's fundraising might and a possible place in the history books: He would be the nation's first Cuban-American senator.


''There's a great deal of emotion associated with that,'' Martinez said Tuesday.

``It's a historic moment for me, the nation and my family. For people who identify with me because of my ethnic background and our common heritage, I am just very proud to be carrying that standard. I hope to do it with pride, honor and integrity.''


At the Republican National Convention in New York, the Florida delegation kept a watchful eye on the primary results.

Now the race will go national. In a contest that could tip the balance of power in the U.S. Senate, political bigwigs, cash-rich special interest groups and the parties' fundraising machines will all exert their influence.

So will President Bush, who hopes Martinez will boost Republican-friendly Hispanic turnout on Nov. 2, especially in South Florida. Signaling their co-dependence, Martinez won a coveted speaking role at the party convention Thursday -- right before President Bush.

Castor had every reason to be confident in Tuesday's race, with most polls giving her a double-digit lead over her chief rival, Congressman Peter Deutsch. Eager to retain the seat held for 18 years by Graham, the Democratic political establishment rushed to anoint her as the nominee.

The party's Washington-based Senate committee went so far as to arrange a conference call with Castor advisors discussing general election strategy two hours before the polls had closed.

And at 9:07 p.m., with more than half of the votes yet to be tallied, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee hailed her victory.


''Whoever won the Olympic gold for pole vaulting should send it back to Athens and then to Tampa,'' Graham said at Castor's post-election party. `Tonight I am happy to pass the baton to Betty.''

Castor said her opponents all called to offer their support.

McCollum conceded the Republican race at 10:40 p.m., after calling Martinez to congratulate him and asking for a ''good hearty discussion'' about how he conducted the campaign in the past few days.

McCollum refused to elaborate, but made it clear he would not endorse Martinez until they ``have that conversation.''

He told his supporters: ``There are a few things that have happened over the last two days that I'm not happy with and I'm sure you're not happy with.''

During the homestretch of the campaign, Martinez blanketed mailboxes and televisions with attack ads deriding McCollum as ''anti-family'' and a darling of the ''radical homosexual lobby'' because he supports legislation against hate crimes and in favor of embryonic stem-cell research.

The harsh language prompted Republican Gov. Jeb Bush to urge him to pull the commercial and the St. Petersburg Times to yank its endorsement, saying it didn't want to be associated with ``bigotry.''


Castor, the only Democrat who had run statewide before, claimed front-runner status from the beginning.

She kept a leisurely campaign schedule when compared to the hard-charging pace and style of Deutsch.

Some Democrats may have been turned off by Deutsch's tough criticism of Castor and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas.

But to the end, the 22-year elected official was unbending.

''I have no regrets about this campaign,'' said Deutsch, after giving his wife and mother flowers at a poolside gathering with emotional supporters at a Fort Lauderdale hotel.

Penelas, who tried to salvage a struggling campaign by calling for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, didn't even win his home county.

He told friends and family: ``We ran a good campaign that we can be proud of.''

Herald staff writers Cara Buckley, Lesley Clark, Frank Davies, Mary Ellen Klas, Hannah Sampson and Casey Woods contributed to this report.

Source: The Miami Herald