The Politics of Bigotry and Hatred

Former HUD secretary Mel Martinez gets the nod to run for a Florida Senate seat. More's the pity.

| Wed Sep. 1, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

The White House dodged a bullet Tuesday in Florida, as Republican voters selected Bush favorite Mel Martinez as their nominee for that state's open Senate seat.

Most immediately, Martinez's win allows him to keep his coveted convention speaking spot Thursday night. GOP planners had tentatively penciled Martinez in to speak right before George Bush accepts the nomination, giving the former HUD secretary a maximum-exposure spot, contingent on his win. Martinez expects to help Bush boost his flagging support among Cuban Americans, and the president called to congratulate Martinez late Tuesday night, no doubt feeling a sense of relief:

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"He was very excited. He was ecstatic about he margin of victory. He told me he looked forward to campaigning with me in Florida in the near future," Martinez told the Associated Press. "Without a doubt I have his endorsement and his friendship."

With that uncertainty behind them, the Republicans' biggest worry is whether the bitter last days of the Florida primary will hurt Martinez, who faces former state education commissioner Betty Castor for the seat currently held by retiring Sen. Bob Graham.

Former Rep. Bill McCollum, who finished second among eight candidates in the Republican primary with about 31 percent of the vote, has withheld his endorsement, despite calling Martinez to congratulate him. McCollum, who ran as the Republican's Senate nominee in 2000 before losing to Bill Nelson, told supporters he first needs a ''good hearty discussion'' with Martinez about his primary tactics:

"There are a few things that have happened over the last two days that I'm not happy with and I'm sure you're not happy with."

Those "things" include attack ads Martinez leveled against McCollum, calling him "anti-family" and allied with "the radical homosexual lobby," presumably because of McCollum's past support of hate-crime legislation.

McCollum called the approach the "politics of bigotry and hatred," and he wasn't alone. No less a personage than Florida Gov. Jeb Bush asked Martinez to pull the ad, and the St. Petersburg Times withdrew its endorsement for the first time in the paper's history. Saying it "could not be associated with bigotry, the Times switched its support from Martinez to McCollum just days before the vote. Martinez still emerged victorious, though the Miami Herald noted:

"His last-minute barrage of attacks against main rival Bill McCollum began to undermine his nice-guy image. It may have been unnecessary -- judging by his comfortable margin of victory -- and might prove damaging in a general election campaign."

On the Democratic side, Castor successfully avoided such party infighting. She led the polls early, and cruised to victory Tuesday with more than 55 percent of the vote. All her opponents have already endorsed her ahead of what's expected to be a close general election.

Martinez obviously has some work to do to regain the trust of social moderates, his trial-lawyer background reportedly makes some Republicans uneasy, and his recent spat with Gov. Bush will no doubt provide Democrats with campaign fodder. Martinez has survived a tough contest, but Castor will no doubt prove a formidable opponent.

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