"Working together for a free Cuba"




Martinez holds tiny lead.
By Marc Caputo, Beth Reinhard and Gail Epstein Nieves

ORLANDO - Mel Martinez declared victory early today and claimed the mantle of the first Cuban-American senator in the nation's history, but immediately ushered in complaints from opponent Betty Castor that he was ''conjuring up 2000'' by jumping the gun.

With almost all precincts reporting, Martinez said Castor's claims were ''nonsense.'' He led by about 1 percent -- a margin that's a nose outside the threshold requiring a recount.

But the tally didn't include what Castor said were ''one-quarter of a million'' absentee ballots not yet counted. And Castor said her campaign will monitor vote canvassing boards today.

''I believe it is premature for anyone to declare victory before every vote is counted,'' Castor said just after 1:30 a.m. at her Tampa hotel. ``We want every vote to be counted in this state before there is any absolute completion to this race, and I believe this is what the people of Florida want also.''

Martinez, listening to Castor's televised remarks, agreed with her in one respect: It sounded eerily like the battles of four years ago.

''I hope we don't get embroiled in negativity. That would be sad for Florida. I don't think Florida and the people of America are really ready for that kind of nonsense,'' he said.

If Martinez's victory is clear after all absentee ballots are counted, it would be a devastating blow to the Democratic Party, which now holds only one statewide office in Florida, occupied by Sen. Bill Nelson. Not since Reconstruction have Republicans so dominated the state.

Martinez, the White House's hand-picked man, emerged from his Orlando hotel room about 1 a.m. today, just 25 hours after wrapping up his campaign in Miami-Dade.

It was in Miami, at a former car dealership early Tuesday, that Martinez stood beneath a banner that summed up his campaign: "Hagamos historia.''

There's a reason it didn't say ''Let's make history'' in English. The gravity of the phrase would have been lost in translation.

Martinez needed every Hispanic vote, with a lead so narrow that it could be blamed on stealth candidate Dennis Bradley of the Veterans Party, who garnered about 2.3 percent of the vote.

Castor thanked supporters gathered in a Tampa hotel ballroom at 11 p.m. Until declaring victory, Martinez had stayed cloistered in his hotel room in Orlando, seat of his home county, which he appeared to lose by about 6,000 votes. Castor led in her home counties in Tampa Bay.

She, too, tried to make history: She wanted to be the first Democratic woman to represent Florida in the U.S. Senate and only the second female senator in the state's history.

Martinez could thank heavy support from Hispanics, who responded viscerally to his ethnicity, his immigrant success story and his skill at telling it.

The White House helped, too, loaning him advice and advisors from the earliest days of the campaign. Originally, strategists figured Martinez could help Bush. But the president's far stronger showing in the state put the lie to the notion.

All along, Martinez's campaign was far from easy.

The long hours on the campaign trail were more grueling than the former federal housing secretary expected. And, in such a bitter campaign race, the toll on his reputation was almost more than he could bear.

As a bridge-building moderate in Orange County, he was well-liked by both the Republican establishment and Democrats and seemed like a natural to seek statewide office.

But by campaign's end, he and his family endured commercials suggesting that he was a mean bigot. The ads from Castor, the Democratic Party and an abortion rights group berated him for opposing so-called hate crimes legislation and for his labeling of a Republican primary opponent as a tool of the ``radical homosexual lobby.''

In the final days of the campaign, Castor started spreading stories suggesting Martinez unethically reaped financial benefits while he was housing secretary. Castor was careful to avoid claiming Martinez did anything illegal.

An outraged Martinez went to great lengths to deny the innuendos, saying that he would have never done anything sleazy because ``there are thousands of immigrant children that look to me as a role model.''

Martinez, 58, came to the United States without his parents from Cuba when he was 15 as part of Operation Pedro Pan, a movement spearheaded by the Catholic Church to bring children to the United States from Cuba.

Time and again, he used the story to equate communism with terrorism. In doing so, he suggested Castor didn't have the same stomach to fight terrorists.

Martinez's case in point: former University of South Florida professor Sami al-Arian, who awaits trial on charges that he helped Palestinian suicide bombers. Martinez said Castor should have taken stronger action against al-Arian when she was the college's president in the mid-1990s. Castor countered that if al-Arian were such an obvious threat, he should not have been permitted to campaign with George W. Bush in 2000 and visit the White House.

Martinez had hop scotched the state Monday and played second fiddle to GOP heavyweights Jeb Bush and Rudy Giuliani. Only in Miami-Dade was Martinez introduced as the headliner at an event.

Martinez's staffers were confident of victory because they thought they had run a superior campaign -- at least on television, which is a must in a state as big as Florida.

Martinez kept the plan simple: He first introduced himself to voters as an immigrant kid who grew up to become federal housing secretary. He soon ran pointed and successful negative ads bashing his opponent, interspersing those commercials with new spots calling for ''rock-solid'' Social Security and hurricane relief.

Castor, who spent a good two weeks responding to Martinez's attacks, was slow to seize the initiative in her ad campaign. She jumped from topic to topic -- prescription drugs, Martinez's aggressive campaign style, her healthcare initiatives.

Castor got some needed help from the Democratic Party and the abortion-rights group Emily's List. Both ran similar ads calling Martinez mean, especially for what they suggested were gay-bashing positions that Martinez took in the Republican primary campaign.

Source: The Miami Herald
Posted on Wed, Nov. 03, 2004