- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Mel Martinez’s solid win in Tuesday’s Republican primary for the Florida U.S. Senate seat was a surprise to many pollsters who had the race either neck and neck or going in his opponent’s favor.

In nearly every poll this year until the last week before the primary, former Rep. Bill McCollum was leading Mr. Martinez by margins from four to 15 percentage points.

When the votes were counted Tuesday, Mr. Martinez, President Bush’s former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, had beaten Mr. McCollum by nearly 14 points, garnering 44.8 percent of the vote to Mr. McCollum’s 31 percent.

Miami-based pollster Sergio Bendixen, who had predicted a win for Mr. McCollum two weeks ago, said the real push for Mr. Martinez came from Mr. Bush and the Cuban-American vote.

“I think what really impacted on people was Mr. Martinez using President Bush in his commercials in a way that conveyed that he, although Mr. Bush did not endorse him officially, was the president’s clear choice,” Mr. Bendixen said.

It also became clear yesterday after the official results were released that Mr. Martinez had locked up the support of Republican stalwart Cuban-Americans in southern Florida, taking 90 percent of their vote.

“I don’t think Mr. Martinez in his wildest dreams expected to take 90 percent from Cubans,” he said.

Mr. Martinez was on his way to New York to speak at the Republican National Convention yesterday and was unavailable for comment.

In November, he will face Betty Castor, the Democratic nominee and former state education commissioner, who trounced all opposition with 57.8 percent of the vote. Her closest challenger, Rep. Peter Deutsch, got 28.1 percent.

Mrs. Castor will move forward in a much tougher election when she faces Mr. Martinez, who was the only Republican to poll ahead of her before the primary. But Castor campaign officials said there may be problems ahead for Mr. Martinez because the negativity in the waning days of the campaign could hurt him.

“Martinez ran a divisive, partisan and negative campaign,” said Castor campaign spokesman Matt Burgess.

Mr. Martinez last week put up television ads claiming that Mr. McCollum was “the new darling of the homosexual extremists” because he supported a bill to make homosexuals a protected class under hate-crime laws.

The ads were denounced by many Republicans and prompted the St. Petersburg Times to rescind its endorsement of Mr. Martinez and urged Florida Republicans to vote for Mr. McCollum.

Mr. Bendixen said although the public display did not hurt Mr. Martinez in the primary battle, it may have cost him the war.

“The more important observation is, because Martinez lost the support of the St. Petersburg Times … over the gay-rights issue, it may make it very difficult for him to run as a moderate, and that paper’s endorsement is the most influential in the state,” he said.

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