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Martinez Poised For Primary Win

A late surge by former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez (R) has buoyed national Republicans heading into today’s Florida Senate primary, even as the contest has grown increasingly bitter and divisive in its closing days.

Martinez, the party establishment favorite who has the implicit support of the White House, is locked in a tight battle with former Rep. Bill McCollum (R), the unsuccessful 2000 Senate nominee who led most polls in the race before last week.

Provided Martinez wins the nomination, he is scheduled to arrive in New York Thursday morning and is slated for a prime-time speaking slot at the Republican National Convention that night, before President Bush formally accepts the party’s nomination.

“We seem to have the momentum and everything seems in place for victory [Tuesday] night,” said Martinez spokeswoman Jennifer Coxe. “People have really responded to Mel’s positive message.”

But the final week of the campaign has been anything but positive for the GOP, as Martinez and McCollum launched negative attacks against each other in an effort to appeal to Christian conservatives.

Several heated exchanges between the two men in a televised debate Friday night capped off a push by Martinez’s campaign last week to portray McCollum as a supporter of liberal “anti-family” policies.

A recent mailer sent out by the Martinez campaign accuses the former lawmaker of appeasing “the radical homosexual lobby” by supporting the federal hate crimes bill. Martinez has also attacked McCollum for backing embryonic stem cell research. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who has remained publicly neutral in the contest, even entered the fray late last week by asking Martinez to pull down a television ad that painted McCollum as pro-gay rights and gay marriage.

The St. Petersburg Times on Monday rescinded its earlier endorsement of Martinez, and instead urged voters to back McCollum. Martinez has been backed by most of the major newspapers in the state.

At the debate Friday, a visibly angered McCollum called Martinez unfit for office and labeled his opponent’s tactics “despicable” and the charges untrue. After the debate, McCollum demanded an apology from Martinez and said unless one is forthcoming he would not support Martinez in the general election if Martinez is the nominee.

But McCollum has lobbed his own attacks at Martinez, comparing him to Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards (N.C.) by playing up his past experience as head of the Florida Trial Lawyers Association and his past ties to Democrats.

McCollum, who lost the 2000 Senate contest to now-Sen. Bill Nelson (D), launched a radio spot over the weekend attacking Martinez’s HUD stewardship and claiming the agency was mismanaged during his tenure.

Coxe maintained that McCollum’s criticism of the former HUD chief was also an attack on the Bush administration, a move she predicted GOP primary voters will not look kindly upon.

Coxe characterized McCollum’s behavior at the debate and talk that he may not support the eventual nominee as “sour grapes over not getting to be Florida’s next Senator.”

She added that the Martinez campaign is now “focused on bringing the party together.”

A Mason-Dixon survey last week showed Martinez leading McCollum by 6 points, the first time he has led in an independent poll. More recent polling has shown the contest to be a dead heat.

One Republican lobbyist said the party has too much riding on Florida, a key presidential election battleground, not to unify quickly after the primary.

“I’ve got to believe that they will pull the party together pretty swiftly,” the lobbyist said.

“It’s not a time for bad behavior on the part of losers”.

Martinez, who entered the race at the urging of the White House, has been viewed from the outset as the party’s strongest possible nominee and party strategists are hoping his ability to energize Florida’s Hispanic community will help the president in November.

“It would appear that Martinez is obviously in line to get the nomination,” the GOP lobbyist said. “The establishment will like that outcome. He’s judged to be the most elect able of the Republicans in the primary.”

Still, the lobbyist noted there has been “significant ambivalence” toward Martinez in the business community because of his trial lawyer background.

Eight major candidates are vying in tomorrow’s primaries for the chance to succeed retiring Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) next Congress.

Democrats look likely to nominate former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor when voters go to the polls today.

“We’re pleased with where we’re at right now, but we’re not taking anything for granted,” said Castor spokesman Matt Burgess. “We’re working hard to make sure that all of our supporters vote.”

Castor faces Rep. Peter Deutsch and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas in the primary. While Penelas’ campaign has faded in recent weeks, Deutsch has attacked Castor for failing to remove a professor with suspected ties to terrorists during her tenure as president of the University of South Florida. Still, the issue appears to have garnered him little traction and a poll released Monday showed Castor with a solid 48 percent to 24 percent lead over the Congressman.

In the waning days of the campaign Deutsch has concentrated his efforts on turning out support in the black and Jewish communities. He spent Monday campaigning around the state with the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Castor, viewed as the most moderate and therefore electable general election nominee for Democrats, has all but swept the state’s major newspaper endorsements. She recently campaigned with former Attorney General Janet Reno and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D).

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