- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 1, 2004

MIAMI (AP) — Mel Martinez, the former Bush-administration housing secretary, won the Republican nomination for Senate yesterday in a primary that saw a mostly trouble-free test of the touch-screen machines introduced after the furor over Florida’s punch-card system in 2000.

In November, he will face former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor, a Democrat who swept to an overwhelming victory yesterday as her party’s nominee.

Mr. Martinez, hoping to become the first Cuban-American senator, had quiet support from the White House, which repeatedly had urged him behind the scenes to seek the Senate seat.

Republicans have predicted that Mr. Martinez could increase turnout among Cuban-Americans in South Florida and a growing non-Cuban Hispanic community in central Florida. As a teenage refugee, Mr. Martinez also had a compelling personal story.

In a field of seven Republicans, Mr. Martinez drew 45 percent, or 451,774 votes, with 84 percent of precincts reporting. Former Rep. Bill McCollum, who won the nomination in 2000, had 31 percent, or 315,039 votes.

In the Democratic primary, Mrs. Castor drew 59 percent, or 558,107 votes, with 84 percent of precincts reporting.

Earlier this week, Mr. McCollum called on Mr. Martinez to repudiate a campaign mailing that called Mr. McCollum “the new darling of the homosexual extremists” for supporting a hate-crime bill that made homosexuals a protected class.

Mr. Martinez refused, and Mr. McCollum accused him of practicing “the politics of bigotry and hatred.”

At stake is the seat held by Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, who is retiring after three terms.

The winner of the November election could help determine control of the Senate, since Florida is one of eight states with open seats in the Senate, which has 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one Democrat-leaning independent.

The balloting was a critical test of the touch-screen machines introduced after the 2000 presidential election, when Democrats’ lawsuits over punch cards were responsible for delaying the outcome of the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore for more than a month.

In Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood, which had voting problems in 2002, retiree John Rollins voted by touch screen and said: “It was very easy. The only thing I don’t like is the fine print on the machines. It’s too small.”

Although the Republican race was close in the polls until the end, the Democratic race was consistently led by Mrs. Castor, who was helped by name recognition built during two statewide campaigns as education commissioner and her tenure as president of the University of South Florida.

Despite reports from some voter watch groups, Secretary of State Glenda Hood said her office had no reports of major problems after the last of the polls closed, even in the most populous counties and those hit hardest by Hurricane Charley.

“Voters should feel very confident,” she said.

Charlotte County, still recovering from Hurricane Charley’s onslaught on Aug. 13, had 22 polling places instead of the usual 80.

Pat Stevulak, 74, said there was no way the storm would keep her from voting: “Oh mercy, no. I’d walk to vote.”

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