TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Senate will get either its first Cuban American member, or another woman, when Floridians vote next Tuesday. Former housing Secretary Mel Martinez (search) and Democrat Betty Castor (search) are locked in as tight a race as President Bush and John Kerry (search).
The outcome will not only play a role in whether Republicans or Democrats will control a Senate now divided 51-49 in favor of the GOP. It could also go a long way toward diversifying the face of each party as well as the Senate itself.
"If Martinez wins it would show that the Republicans are able to make inroads among Hispanic voters in Florida and perhaps they can take that model and use it in other parts of the country," said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
Likewise, a Castor win would further tilt the Democratic party to women, Black said.
"White men are increasingly a smaller and smaller part of the Democratic Party nationally," he said. "We'll see more and more women and fewer men elected as Democrats in the next decade. If she is elected, this will accelerate that trend."
Most recent polls show the race a statistical dead heat. The differences between the candidates on issues, though, couldn't be more different.
Martinez favors capping medical malpractice lawsuit awards at $500,000 for non-economic damages; Castor opposes such a cap. Castor supports embryonic stem cell research; Martinez is opposed. Castor wants to preserve abortion rights; Martinez opposes abortion. Martinez said he would support letting younger workers privately invest their Social Security taxes; Castor said that would be too risky.
Over the final two weeks of the campaign, Martinez has tried to paint Castor as an anti-war candidate, seizing upon her comment that she wouldn't have voted for the war in Iraq "knowing what I know now."
"If Betty Castor had had her way, Saddam Hussein would still be butchering the people of Iraq and enslaving his own people and creating problems in the Middle East," Martinez said during a rally for President Bush.
Castor said Martinez is distorting her position. Now that the United States is in Iraq, she said, it must win the war. She proposes doubling special forces and expanding the standing military by two divisions.
Martinez resigned as the Housing and Urban Development secretary after the White House encouraged him to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Bob Graham, who is retiring. Castor, a former state education commissioner and president of the University of South Florida, cites that White House influence when she says Martinez will put the president's priorities above Floridians'.
"I'm not going to be a rubber stamp for any political party, for any president or anyone else," Castor said. "Clearly, I became a candidate because I wanted to, not because the party came to ask me to do that."
Martinez says he doesn't always agree with Bush, explaining for example that he supports a higher cap on medical malpractice lawsuit awards — Bush would limit non-economic damages to $250,000, half of Martinez's limit. In addition, Martinez said he would be more aggressive in allowing importation of U.S.-made prescription drugs. He also says he disagrees with Bush on clean air regulations and that he would restore money Bush cut from a public housing program.
"I'm an independent person," Martinez said. "I am going to vote against some things when I'm in Washington when it comes to the administration. I'm certain of it."
Castor, he says, is beholden to EMILY's List, a group that supports women candidates who back abortion rights. The group contributed more than $1.2 million to Castor's primary race and continues to help her in the general election.
"Her campaign has been taken over and run by a very extreme, left-wing feminist group," Martinez said. "I don't think you can run as a moderate, pretend you're going to be a moderate when you're supported by groups like that."
Castor said her opposition to so-called partial-birth abortions shows she can have opinions that differ from EMILY's List.
Much of the campaign has been dominated by an exchange over a former University of Central Florida professor accused of terrorist links.
Sami Al-Arian was under investigation by the FBI when Castor was the school's president. She placed him on paid administrative leave in 1996, but he was allowed to return two years later because no law enforcement action had been taken against him. He was indicted in 2003 on charges that he raised money for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Castor began an ad war over Al-Arian that eventually dragged in President Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. She said she was the only person to take action to rid the university of terrorists. Martinez responded with an ad in which a federal investigator said she didn't do enough.
Castor then ran an ad showing Al-Arian and President Bush posing for a picture at a campaign event four years ago. Martinez countered with an ad in which Gov. Bush says Castor didn't act against suspected terrorists and instead tried "to shift blame with outrageous claims."