MIAMI – Mel Martinez (search), the former Bush administration housing secretary, decisively won the Republican nomination for Senate Tuesday in a primary that saw a mostly trouble-free test of the touchscreen machines introduced after Florida's punch-card fiasco in 2000.
In November, he will face Florida's former Education Commissioner Betty Castor (search), a Democrat who swept to an overwhelming victory Tuesday as her party's nominee.
Martinez, hoping become the first Cuban-American senator, had quiet support from the White House, which had repeatedly urged him behind the scenes to seek the Senate seat.
Republicans have predicted that Martinez could boost a large turnout among Cuban-Americans in South Florida and a growing Hispanic community in central Florida. As a teenage refugee, Martinez also had a compelling personal story that spoke to many Floridians.
"This is really an improbable journey. It's the kind of thing dreams are made of," Martinez said
In a field of seven Republicans, Martinez drew 45 percent, or 492,855 votes, with 91 percent of precincts reporting.
Castor had 58 percent, or 605,446 votes, with 91 percent of precints reporting. She promised Tuesday to continue pressing for affordable health care and prescription drugs.
"We will not let the powers that be dig in their heels and maintain the status quo," she said.
As the primary drew near, Martinez' campaign sent out a mailing calling his nearest rival, Bill McCollum, "the new darling of the homosexual extremists" for supporting a hate-crime bill that included protection for gays. McCollum, a former congressman who won the nomination in 2000, accused him of practicing "the politics of bigotry and hatred."
At stake is the seat held by Democratic Sen. Bob Graham (search), who is retiring after three terms. The winner of the November election could help determine control of the Senate.
Florida is one of just eight states with open seats in the Senate, which has 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one Democrat-leaning independent.
The balloting was a critical test of the touchscreen machines introduced after the 2000 presidential election, when punch-cards were responsible for delaying the outcome of the race between George Bush and Al Gore for more than a month.
In Miami's predominantly black Liberty City neighborhood, which had voting problems in 2002, retiree John Rollins voted by touchscreen and said: "It was very easy. The only thing I don't like is the fine print on the machines. It's too small."
Although the Republican race was close in the polls until the end, the Democratic race was consistently led by Castor, who was helped by name recognition built during two statewide campaigns as education commissioner and her tenure as president of the University of South Florida.
Despite reports from some voter watch groups, Secretary of State Glenda Hood said her office had no reports of major problems after the last of the polls closed, even in the most populous counties and those hit hardest by Hurricane Charley.
"Voters should feel very confident," said Hood.
But groups skeptical of the new touchscreen voting machines said the November election would not necessarily be as trouble-free.
"These machines haven't been independently tested, they don't have an audit trail," said Cindy Cohn, a lawyer working with the Election Protection coalition. "This idea that we have to cross our fingers and hope everything went OK is no way to run an election."
In other Florida elections Tuesday:
— Theresa LePore, creator of the infamous "butterfly ballot" used in the 2000 presidential election, led in early returns in her attempt to retain her job as Palm Beach County elections supervisor.
During the disputed 2000 election, some voters complained that her design caused them to vote mistakenly for conservative Pat Buchanan instead of Democrat Al Gore. The Democratic Party abandoned LePore and put up a new candidate. LePore declared herself an independent and received backing from the Republicans.
She had 53 percent of the vote, with 49 percent of precincts reporting.
— Connie Mack IV, the son of a popular former senator and the great-grandson of the baseball legend of the same name, won the Republican nomination for the House seat of GOP Rep. Porter Goss, President Bush's choice to head the Central Intelligence Agency. It is also the seat Mack's father held before being elected to the Senate.
— Circuit Judge George Greer of Pinellas County, who has twice ruled that the husband of a brain-damaged woman could remove her feeding tube against the wishes of her parents, kept his seat. He overwhelmingly defeated an opponent who had appealed to anti-abortion groups that have taken up the cause of Terri Schiavo's parents.
— The top two candidates in the race for Miami-Dade County mayor headed to a November runoff after neither drew a simple majority. Carlos Alvarez, the county's former police director, led with 28 percent of the vote, followed by a county commissioner with 20 percent.