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Parties Bullish on Florida

Both Democrats and Republicans claimed to have the momentum in the high-profile Florida Senate race Wednesday after their favored candidates prevailed in primaries Tuesday.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez (R) and former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor (D) won their respective primaries by comfortable margins, setting up a competitive battle to succeed retiring Sen. Bob Graham (D) in November.

“There’s no question I think both parties put their stronger candidate forward,” Rep. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.) said Wednesday morning after the Florida delegation breakfast at the Republican National Convention.

The end of the contentious GOP primary also caps a string of Senate contests this cycle in which the Republican perceived to be the party’s strongest nominee has emerged from a hard-fought, if not ugly, primary.

Contests in South Carolina, Georgia, Illinois, Colorado and Oklahoma all produced nominees who were considered the most electable and in most cases were favored by the national party establishment, as Martinez was in the Sunshine State.

A jubilant National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) addressed the Florida delegates at Wednesday’s breakfast, as the party moves to unify behind Martinez.

“In this job we’ve gone through so many of these primaries,” Allen said in an interview as he left the meeting. “In each and every one of them we’ve gotten the strongest candidate. And in each case the candidate is better for it, as stressful and as costly as these primaries are. They are tough … but you come out of it stronger and better organized and unified. And I think that’s clearly going to happen here.”

After gaining steady momentum in the final 10 days of the contest, Martinez ultimately sailed past his main rival, former Rep. Bill McCollum, winning by a 14-point margin.

The contest took a nasty turn in its final two weeks, as Martinez sought to portray McCollum as “anti-family” and “pro-gay.”

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.) called the primary “the ugliest race I’ve seen in a very long time” and acknowledged that the party has wounds to heal.

“I will estimate about 95 percent of Republicans will support Mel Martinez,” she said Wednesday. “What we have to do is we have to work on that other 5 percent. It just got so nasty toward the end.”

But Allen and other Republicans said they were not concerned about the party’s ability to unify after the primary, despite McCollum’s recent assertion that he would not be able to support Martinez unless he received an apology.

“Mel’s the kind of guy who can bring people together,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.), who also addressed the Florida delegation Wednesday. “He’s an affable, wonderful, unifying kind of guy. I don’t believe there’ll be any question that the people in this room and others will unify behind him and support his effort to win the Senate race.”

Martinez, a former Orange County chairman who fled from Cuba as a child, is scheduled to address the Republican convention in prime time tonight. He entered the Senate race at the urging of the White House, and the GOP establishment in Washington, D.C., quickly lined up behind his campaign. Republicans hope his presence on the November ballot boosts President Bush’s prospects in the all-important swing state.

While Republicans were optimistic about their ability to unify before November, Democrats were equally if not more enthusiastic about Castor’s general election prospects after her crushing 30-point primary victory.

Castor, a former state legislator and past president of the University of South Florida, took 58 percent of the vote. Rep. Peter Deutsch got 28 percent and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas got 10 percent in the Democratic contest. Penelas and Deutsch are scheduled to appear with Castor at a unity event in the state today.

Democrats released a poll two hours before the polls closed Tuesday that showed Castor and Martinez in a statistical dead heat. Castor led Martinez 48 percent to 44 percent in a poll done for her campaign. It had a 4 point margin of error.

On Wednesday Democrats touted Castor’s solid majority victory and their party’s post-primary unity. They argue that Castor’s ability to focus on mainstream issues and not stray from her moderate profile during the primary campaign gives her an initial advantage over Martinez, who tacked to the right and angered some party loyalists with his personal attacks on McCollum.

“Martinez has an interesting pivot that he has to make,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse. “Either he has to continue to run as an anti-stem cell research, gay-bashing ideologue or he has to try to pivot to the center which will mean that he was just a mean-spirited, calculating politician in the way that he conducted himself in the waning days of the primary.”

Elsewhere in the state Tuesday, Republicans in the 14th district chose former state Rep. Connie Mack IV as their nominee in the race to succeed retiring Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.). Mack edged out state Rep. Carole Green in the four-way contest, taking 36 percent of the vote. Green got 32 percent, and Lee County Commissioner Andy Coy got 22 percent. Mack is all but assured victory in the safe Republican Ft. Meyers-based district.

Meanwhile, national Democrats were handed a big disappointment in another district where they had hoped for a competitive race. In the Sarasota-based 13th, attorney Jan Schneider beat out bank president Christine Jennings in the Democratic primary, setting up a rematch with freshman Rep. Katherine Harris (R) this fall.

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