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Florida Primary to Test More Than Candidates

Times Staff Writer

With parts of the state still cleaning up the destruction caused by Hurricane Charley, voters go to the polls Tuesday for a primary that will decide the major parties’ candidates to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Bob Graham and test Florida’s ability to hold trouble-free elections.

Jenny Nash, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State, predicted a “successful” outcome. But across the state, there were numerous unresolved disputes over absentee ballots, electronic voting machines and provisions for a manual recount.

A nonpartisan voter rights group, People for the American Way Foundation, said it would place volunteers in orange T-shirts at selected precincts to assist voters and also operate a hotline to register citizen complaints.

Ralph G. Neas, the foundation’s chairman, called the primary a “trial run” for the Nov. 2 general election. After the debacle of the 2000 election and recount, Florida instituted sweeping electoral reforms that Gov. Jeb Bush said made his state a model for the rest of the nation. But the new controversies have reignited widespread doubt.

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In addition to candidates for the open U.S. Senate seat, Tuesday’s primary will determine nominees for congressional races, the state legislature, county and municipal offices, and judgeships.

In southwestern Florida, where thousands of buildings were razed or severely damaged by the Aug. 13 hurricane, some voters will be casting ballots in tents, Nash said.

State and local agencies have been working around the clock to ensure the counties most affected by the storm “will be able to hold these elections,” the state official said. “We’re excited about the primary, and we think it’s going to be a successful election cycle.”

But Charley may affect the contest in a more subtle way.

“For about eight days in Florida, we had hurricane coverage all day, all the time,” said Aubrey Jewett, associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida. Any political advertisements or statements during that time would not have made much of an impact. “I think this has worked out to the advantage of the front-runner,” Jewett said.

In the Senate race, according to opinion polls, the consistent leader for the Democrats has been former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor of Tampa. Among Republicans, the front-runner has been former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum of Longwood, founder and former chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives task force on terrorism and unconventional warfare.

But one poll published Friday showed McCollum being passed for the first time by Mel Martinez, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

The candidacy of Cuban-born Martinez, of Orlando and the GOP’s highest-ranking Latino, was engineered by the Bush administration, said David C. King of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.

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Martinez, 57, former chairman of Orange County, Fla., has been touting himself as the Republican who can best appeal to crossover voters -- and also boost the president’s own reelection chances.

“I believe I’m the kind of candidate who can help President Bush in Florida,” Martinez said after a campaign appearance before seniors in Miami’s Little Havana.

His name on the November ballot, he said, would be a powerful “calling card” that would help attract more Cuban Americans, who are predominantly Republican, to the polls.

“There is a belief among the Republicans, certainly in the White House, that Martinez on the ticket will increase the turnout, not just of Cuban Americans, but of all Hispanics in Florida,” said King, the Harvard professor. “President Bush is wounded there. They need someone on the ticket who can bring other voters over to Bush. It’s an example of what’s called ‘reverse coattails.’ ”

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The McCollum camp counters that its candidate, who helped manage impeachment proceedings against President Clinton while serving in the House, is far more qualified to tackle the issues that concern Floridians most.

McCollum, 60, a former Navy officer who served on the House Intelligence Committee, was named to an advisory panel on domestic security created by Gov. Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

On Tuesday, some conservative organizations, including National Right to Life and Florida Family Focus, criticized McCollum for backing stem-cell research on embryos produced through in-vitro fertilization. The McCollum camp cried foul and blamed Martinez.

“Obviously, this is a desperate tactic from a campaign that’s running behind,” said Shannon Gravitte, McCollum’s communications director. “Bill McCollum has a 20-year record as a pro-life, pro-family conservative.”

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In 2000, McCollum narrowly lost against Florida’s other Democratic senator, Bill Nelson.

Another recent poll showed McCollum still in the lead. Businessman Doug Gallagher and former Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd have been running third and fourth, respectively, among GOP candidates.

On the Democratic side, it has effectively become a two-way battle to retain the Senate seat the 67-year-old Graham filled for three terms.

In the final days of the campaign, Castor, 63, was skewered in a television advertisement by rival candidate U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch of Hollywood for not doing more while president of the University of South Florida to oppose the activities of a Palestinian professor, Sami Al-Arian, who was subsequently arrested and accused of aiding suicide bombers in Israel.

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On the campaign trail, Castor has stressed her experience in state government and ability to work with Republicans, and her proven capability at winning votes in the Panhandle and other conservative and Republican areas of Florida.

But the Deutsch camp has argued that the Al-Arian affair would be her Achilles’ heel if she made it to the general election.

“The facts of the Al-Arian case continue to be troubling and will make strong fodder for the Republicans” if Castor emerges victorious from the primary, said Roy Teicher, communications director for the Deutsch campaign. Deutsch, 47, a self-described “fighter” in his 12th year in Congress, has vowed to introduce a bill mandating universal healthcare on his first day in the Senate.

Matt Burgess, spokesman for the Castor campaign, said the TV spot that had been aired in Orlando and Tampa violated a pledge that Deutsch signed with other Democratic candidates to refrain from personal attacks.

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“It shows he can’t be trusted. He’s just nasty and desperate,” Burgess said. The spokesman also defended Castor’s actions while university president. “She suspended Al-Arian,” he said. “She took the initial steps that led to his dismissal.”

Running a distant third for the Democrats is outgoing Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, whose candidacy is viewed as toxic by many in his party who found him conspicuously absent in the home stretch of the last presidential election.

In June, former Vice President Al Gore fired off an e-mail denouncing Penelas as “the single most treacherous and dishonest person I dealt with during the campaign anywhere in America.”

Penelas says he has always conducted himself as a loyal Democrat. In a televised debate with the two leading Democratic candidates, he called for withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2005.

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