- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Even though former Rep. Bill McCollum is expected to win the Florida Republican Senate primary, some polls show that former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez might be the stronger candidate against Democratic front-runner Betty Castor.

“I think we’re looking at Castor versus McCollum, and it will be very close, but there are polls that seem to indicate that McCollum could be weaker against Castor than Martinez,” said Miami-based pollster Sergio Bendixen.

For example, the most recent Mason Dixon poll, released in July, showed Mrs. Castor, a former state education commissioner, leading Mr. McCollum by 44 percent to 39 percent. But in the same poll, she and Mr. Martinez are tied, at 39 percent each.

Three Democrats and five Republicans are vying for the parties’ nominations in the Aug. 31 primary to replace three-term Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat.

Florida election officials feared that the aftermath of Hurricane Charley might prevent some of the state’s 67 counties from beginning early voting today, as scheduled.

“Secretary of State [Glenda E.] Hood did speak to all 67 supervisors of elections yesterday, and all but two as of [today] will have started their early voting and we are very optimistic that all counties will be able to hold the election on August 31 as scheduled,” said Jenny Nash, spokeswoman for Mrs. Hood.

Several campaigns were disrupted this week because of power outages caused by Hurricane Charley, and some were without power as recently as Monday night.

“We just got our power back, and I heard Mel Martinez got his power back [Monday],” said Shannon Butler, spokeswoman for Mr. McCollum, whose offices are in Orlando down the road from Mr. Martinez’s.

Mr. McCollum leads in the most recent polls, heading into the final week, making the race his to lose.

“If we average out all the polls, we have a 10-point lead, and he has consistently been the front-runner in this race,” Miss Butler said.

After all the candidates participated in a debate last night sponsored by the Hispanic Forum in Orlando, Mr. Martinez will begin a tour down the state’s west coast.

“We have been able to marshal our resources for a final push,” said Jennifer Coxe, spokeswoman for the Martinez campaign. “For running against a candidate who has been running statewide for six years, we are doing very well.”

Republican state Rep. Johnnie Byrd, however, is sticking to his grass-roots efforts, and an expected low voter turnout because of the hurricane could prove favorable to him, said his campaign manager Wayne Garcia.

“The speaker has always had strong support in the Christian and fiscal conservative communities, and these are extremely avid voters and that will serve us well if the interest is sucked out,” he said.

Also running in the Republican primary are mortgage-loan-software magnate Doug Gallagher, who is running third in some polls, and Larry Klayman, the founder of the D.C.-based government watchdog group Judicial Watch, who has trailed the entire race.

On the Democratic side, there seems to be no question that Mrs. Castor, has the primary well in hand. The Mason Dixon poll had her leading with 37 percent of likely Democratic voters supporting her nomination. Rep. Peter Deutsch got 21 percent, and Miami-Dade County Mayor Mark Penelas got 10 percent in the poll, which had a margin of error of five percentage points.

“We see a very aggressive Congressmen Deutsch in terms of advertising, and I believe he has the most money, but there is little evidence that the preference will change with two weeks to go and in a race with what looks to be little interest.” Mr. Bendixen said.

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