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Castor, Martinez advance in Florida

/ Source: The Associated Press

Betty Castor, Florida’s former education commissioner, decisively won the Democratic nomination for Senate on Tuesday in a primary election that saw a mostly trouble-free test of the touchscreen machines introduced after Florida’s punch-card fiasco in 2000.

On the Republican side, Mel Martinez, a former Bush administration housing secretary hoping to become the first Cuban-American senator, won the hotly contested GOP Senate primary.

Castor had 62 percent, or 469,140 votes, with 66 percent of precincts reporting. Her nearest rival, Peter Deutsch, trailed with 25 percent of the vote.

In a field of seven Republicans, Martinez drew 42 percent, or 365,462 votes, with 65 percent of precincts reporting, while Bill McCollum, a former congressman also considered a front-runner, had 33 percent, or 283,855 votes.

Earlier this week, McCollum called on Martinez to repudiate a campaign mailing that called McCollum “the new darling of the homosexual extremists” for supporting a hate-crime bill that included protection for gays. Martinez refused. 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.

Florida is one of just 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 touchscreen machines introduced after the 2000 presidential election, when punch-cards were responsible for delaying the outcome of the race between George Bush and Al Gore for more than a month. There were no immediate reports of serious problems in Tuesday’s voting, which was closely watched by voter rights groups.

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

In the Senate primary, recent polls showed a close race between Martinez and McCollum. Running a distant third was a self-financed millionaire who has never held office.

Behind the scenes, the White House had repeatedly urged Martinez to seek the Senate seat. Republicans predict that Martinez could boost a large turnout among Cuban-Americans in South Florida and a growing Hispanic community in central Florida. As a teenage refugee, Martinez also had a compelling personal story that spoke to many Floridians.

The Democratic race was consistently led by 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.

In the days leading up to the primary, Deutsch campaigned with the Rev. Jesse Jackson in hopes of a large turnout among blacks, who account for more than 20 percent of the Democratic primary electorate.