- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 3, 2004

ORLANDO, Fla. — Republican Senate candidate Mel Martinez led his Democratic opponent Betty Castor by about 40,000 votes early this morning, but percentage-wise the race remained close as neither was willing to call the race over.

“I believe the people of Florida have spoken, and I am humbled to be your next United States senator,” Mr. Martinez told the throngs of supporters in the downtown Embassy Suites hotel ballroom.

Election onlookers were ecstatic early this morning as exit poll results flashed across TV screens, showing Mr. Martinez leading 52 percent to 47 percent.

Earlier in the evening results showed Mrs. Castor pulling even at 10 p.m., and sounds of exasperation could be heard throughout the hotel. The close vote totals could mean a recount in this race, and is likely to add time to the vote count here, as election officials have already said they will not finish counting absentee ballots until tomorrow.

“We are optimistic but not yet ready to claim victory this early,” said campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Coxe.

The Cuban-born, former Housing and Urban Development secretary remained confident in his support base and relaxed most of the day after waiting 30 minutes in line to vote at the Orange County Herndon Branch library. If elected, he will be the first Cuban American elected to the U.S. Senate.

Mrs. Castor spent most of the day stumping at a coffee shop and a deli before returning to her home in Tampa.

She later attended a campaign party at the Wyndham Westshore Hotel in Tampa, where she thanked retiring Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, whose seat she is trying to fill.

“Naturally, in our home base we are going to do well, but we are also going to do well in South Florida,” she said. “I understand that the lines are long down there, which is good for me.”

Mrs.Castor had refused to concede defeat at 12:30 p.m., despite being down by 40,000 votes with 96 percent of precincts reporting, and she made her second appearance before supporters at the Wyndham Hotel after midnight to tell them, “It’s not over yet.”

Martinez voters said they knew the election would be close but were confident he would win.

“I think it looks pretty encouraging,” said Jim Schnorf, 50, who watched the results with his daughter Lisa, 15. “The polls are so sophisticated now that it would be hard for them to be off by that much, and the polls said it was dead-even.”

It was clear whom Orlando voters were supporting, as there were few Castor campaign yard signs citywide but a wealth of Martinez signs were draped in windows of businesses and planted in house lawns. Mr. Martinez is a former chairman of the Orange County Commission, which includes Orlando.

Mr. Martinez, meanwhile, said he was counting on large turnout of Hispanic voters, which he said would also help President Bush reclaim the White House.

“I think so, and I’m hoping [Mr. Bush] will help me claim votes in other areas; so it seems there is a mutual benefit for both of us,” Mr. Martinez said. “The Hispanic population is supporting me very strong and I am proud of that, and I know Florida feels this is an historic day to keep the country moving forward in the right direction with President Bush.”

A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Glenda E. Hood said there were few voter-related problems throughout the state and that early voting paid big dividends, despite long lines yesterday.

“We had a few minor issues: One or two sites opened five to 15 minutes late, a poll watcher in South Florida had to be removed due to their behavior, and in Broward [County], we had a few machines that needed to be recalibrated,” Jenny Nash said.

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