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THE REPUBLICAN CONVENTION

Bush's Candidate Wins GOP Senate Nomination in Florida

September 01, 2004|Peter Wallsten and John Glionna | Times Staff Writers

MIAMI — Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez won the Republican nomination Tuesday for Florida's open Senate seat, giving President Bush a boost in a key battleground state.

The Cuban-born Martinez, the White House's handpicked choice to compete for the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, had trailed for much of the campaign, sparking concern among GOP strategists that a loss in the primary would embarrass Bush in the midst of the party's national convention.

Instead, Martinez will fly to New York today to deliver a speech from the convention stage, giving the president exactly what his advisors had in mind when they recruited him: a high-profile Latino candidate to mobilize GOP Latino votes in Florida and elsewhere.

"I hope to be a ton of help to the president," Martinez said Tuesday night. "He and I will have great synergy. He'll be a lot of help to me, and I'll be a lot of help to him."

With more than 90% of the precincts reporting, Martinez held a 45%-to-31% lead over former Rep. Bill McCollum.

Martinez will face former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor, who defeated Rep. Peter Deutsch and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas in the Democratic primary.

The election was also a test of new touch-screen voting machines, which Florida officials hoped would erase memories of the punch-card debacle in the 2000 presidential race that delayed results for more than a month.

"So far, everything has gone smoothly," Alia Faraj, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State, said shortly before polls closed in most of the state.

Early surveys foreshadow a close race between Castor and Martinez in a state that is split almost evenly in the contest between Bush and Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry.

Democrats said they thought Martinez, the former elected chairman of central Florida's Orange County, entered the campaign weakened after a primary that ended in name-calling and allegations of bigotry.

A Martinez flier mailed in the final days quoted a conservative activist calling McCollum "the new darling of the homosexual extremists" because he once favored a hate-crimes law. One of Florida's largest newspapers, the St. Petersburg Times, rescinded its endorsement of Martinez, calling the flier bigotry.

The Martinez candidacy also presents a potential challenge for Bush, who frequently attacks plaintiffs' attorneys. Martinez, a lawyer, once headed the trial lawyers' lobbying arm in Florida.

But GOP strategists said Martinez was clearly a better campaigner for Bush.

"It can't do anything but help the president in trying to capture the 27 electoral votes," said former state party Chairman David Johnson. "The Hispanic vote will be very important."

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Glionna reported from Miami and Wallsten from New York. Times staff writer John-Thor Dahlburg in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed to this report.

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