With his failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, Senator Bob Graham of Florida announced his retirement from the United States Senate. The political juggernaut of Florida who won his last two races for the Senate with at least 62 percent of the vote is now gone; the Democrats and Republicans are now in a heated struggle to take the seat polls have in a deadlock. The Republicans look to break the Democratic monopoly on Senate seats in a state that demographically tends to be Republican. After challenging and late primary contests, two candidates emerged: former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez for the Republicans and former state Education Commissioner and University of South Florida President Betty Castor.
The campaign has remained tight in spite of the sudden drop in undecided voters, which has dropped from 21 percent on Oct. 5 to 5 percent on Oct. 7. Some polls have the race in a dead heat; others give Castor a slight advantage. The latest poll numbers from the Tallahassee Democrat show both polling at 45 percent of likely voters. The issue that has dominated this election has been terrorism. Mel Martinez has made an issue of Sami Al-Arian and Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, two former teachers at the University of South Florida. The two were arrested on charges of helping the group Palestinian Islamic Jihad attack Israeli civilians. Martinez alleges that Castor did not do enough to oust the two when she was president of the university between 1994 and 1999. Castor has fired back that she did not have enough information from federal authorities to have the grounds for the dismissal of the two. She is also attacking the Republican congressional leadership for opposing Bill Clinton’s COPS program, which funded the hiring of more cops across the country; she believes that more police officers on the beat make finding terrorist threats more likely. Mel Martinez believes that this money should be given to states and localities so they may invest it as they may in police officers, biohazard treatment equipment, or fire departments. Overall, the two have clashed the most on who is the most qualified to fight for America’s security. Mother Nature has thrown another curveball into the campaign season. Recent hurricanes that have pummeled the Sunshine State have left Castor one million dollars short of her target needed to pay for television ads in the closing days of the campaign. Martinez has had no problems in this department, as several out-of-state sources have kept his message on the airwaves.
Also worth nothing is Florida’s substantial Latino population: one in five Floridians are Hispanic. Unlike in past elections, Cuban Americans only account for just over 50 percent of Latinos. An influx of Puerto Ricans and Latin Americans has caused a split in the Latino vote, which makes efforts more difficult for both President Bush and Martinez. However, recent polls of just the Hispanic population show President Bush with an overwhelming lead. In the end the race will come down to coattails. If President Bush is able to squeak out a victory then Florida will elect a Republican senator. In essence, Mel Martinez will ride to the U.S. Senate on President Bush’s coattails. Yet interestingly enough, it might be President Bush riding to the Oval Office on the coattails of Mel Martinez. Either way the scenario is playing out to be a win one win all situation for both parties. Overall, Florida’s notoriety for tight elections will remain true for this race for Bob Graham’s former Senate seat. Castor and Martinez will likely continue to duke it out over issues of national security and who is the best leader in this post-9/11 political environment.