Senate race may hinge on U.S. vote

Betty Castor and Mel Martinez have recently spent time campaigning with the presidential candidates.

Published: Monday, November 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, October 31, 2004 at 11:22 p.m.
ORLANDO - Democrat Betty Castor and Republican Mel Martinez have had their share of differences in their sometimes nasty U.S. Senate campaign.
But the two candidates, who have relentlessly attacked each other in blistering 30-second TV ads, have something in common too. Their political fates may be tied to the success or failure of their parties' presidential candidates in Florida.
Their campaign schedules for the final weekend of the race before Tuesday's election stressed that political linkage.
On Saturday night, Martinez attended a political rally with President George W. Bush at Tinker Field in Orlando. The next day he boarded Air Force One to continue his campaign with the president, with stops in Miami, Tampa and Gainesville.
Castor was with Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards in Daytona Beach on Saturday night. She ended her Sunday campaigning at a rally with presidential candidate John Kerry at the Curtis-Hixon Auditorium in downtown Tampa.
Martinez, who was urged into the race by Bush aides who saw him as a way to attract Hispanic voters to the ticket, said both he and the president benefit from their relationship.
"I think the presidential campaign and myself have looked at each other as symbiotically connected," Martinez said. "We help each other."
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who spent the weekend campaigning with Castor and Kerry, said he believed the coordinated Democratic campaign to turn out their voters will benefit both the presidential and Senate tickets in Florida.
"I think the superior ground game is going to win it for Kerry and that's going to carry Betty Castor in," Nelson said.
While describing the Senate and presidential races in Florida as too close to call, Nelson said he believed the get-out-the-vote campaign was working, noting reports that nearly a third of the Florida voters who are expected to participate in the election have already voted. "That's incredible," he said.
The race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., is critical to both parties on many levels.
From a national perspective, it is one of a half dozen or so seats that could decide which party controls the U.S. Senate. Currently, the Republicans have a 51-to-48 seat edge, with one independent senator.
In Florida, the stakes may be higher for the Democrats, who have seen their party's influence in statewide politics dramatically decline over the last decade. If they lose Graham's seat, they would be left with Nelson as their only statewide elected official.
For Republicans, a win in the Senate race yields several benefits. It could increase their majority in the U.S. Senate and help President Bush, if he is re-elected, with his national agenda.
In the state, a Martinez victory could solidify the GOP's appeal to the increasingly important bloc of Hispanic voters. Cuban-Americans have long been a mainstay for Florida Republicans, but as that generation ages it is important for the party to reach out to the growing numbers of younger Cubans and non-Cuban Hispanic voters.
In his campaign appearances, Martinez, who came to Florida from Cuba as a teen-ager, has emphasized the fact that he would be the first Cuban-American in the Senate, a legislative body that now has no Hispanic members.
"We can make history together," he told an enthusiastic crowd at a senior center in the "Little Havana" section of Miami last week.
Olga F. Moreno, 80, said she would be voting for Martinez. Asked why, she replied: "Because he's Cuban."
That type of support allowed Martinez to carry Miami-Dade County by a 10-to-1 voting ratio over his nearest rival in the Republican primary for the Senate seat.
Miami Mayor Manny Diaz said he expects Martinez to win the county in the general election, which could hurt Castor's ability to draw a large surplus of votes out of South Florida. "He will win. It's just a question of by how much," Diaz said about his county's vote.
Castor is her own trendsetter. If elected, she would be only the second woman Florida has sent to the U.S. Senate, following Sen. Paula Hawkins, R-Winter Park, who served one term in the 1980s. A former state education commissioner, Castor is appealing to Florida voters who like the style of Bob Graham, a three-term senator and the state's most popular Democrat.
In Graham's mold, Castor is portraying herself as a political moderate, who doesn't always stick to the party line. At the same time, she is making the case that Martinez is too conservative and dogmatic to be an independent voice for the state.
Her message is reaching voters like Sharon Egolf who met Castor at a breakfast gathering at Sassy Cassie's cafi in Lakeland on Saturday.
"We like her issues and what she stands for," Egolf said. "Bob Graham supported her and that's enough for me." But unlike Moreno and Egolf, most voters haven't personally met either Castor or Martinez. Instead they have been introduced to the candidates through a barrage of 30-second television ads, with many of them featuring negative attacks on their rivals. The attack ads have been financed by a record amount of fund-raising in the Senate race. Martinez has collected nearly $12 million, his aides said, while Castor's campaign says she has raised about $10 million. In the TV spots, Martinez has slammed Castor for her handling of the case of a University of South Florida professor who has been accused of terrorism. Other ads have hit Castor for promoting tax increases and for her comments that she wouldn't have voted for the war in Iraq if she knew the country had no weapons of mass destruction. Castor has hit back at Martinez, noting that he was called unprincipled and bigoted for his attacks in the GOP primary, when he accused one of his opponents of favoring homosexual extremists because he had voted for a hate-crimes bill. In the last week, Castor has also questioned some of Martinez's decisions while he was secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Martinez has described Castor's attacks as "character assassination," while saying the negative tenor of the general election has been "disappointing." But Martinez said criticism of Castor's positions, including her comments on Iraq, are fair game. "The ultimate outcome of her belief would have been that Saddam Hussein would still be in power," he said.
Castor said some of the give-and-take in the campaign is understandable, but it has gone too far. "There's always some degree of competition," she said. "In this case, it's turned into a complete distortion and I think that's sad." On the other hand, Castor said negative attacks are a part of any major campaign. "As much as everyone wants to run a positive campaign, research has shown that negative ads work," she said.
Julia Crouse is a reporter with The Ledger in Lakeland.

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