Castor-Martinez Race: Curious Calculations

Much of the early skirmishing in the Florida senate race has been necessarily blunted by hurricane coverage. With the anxiety respite, however, have come some curious calculations.

In the political universe all perception is reality, and the Mel Martinez campaign has allowed its candidate, the former U.S. Housing Secretary and erstwhile president of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, to be portrayed as less than willing to debate Betty Castor. It’s at odds with the image of the courageous youngster who escaped Communist Cuba to undauntingly pursue the American Dream. Fleeing Castro, learning English, adapting to a new culture and achieving professional and political success, yes. Debating your opponent and handling the heat of Tim Russert, no.

As we know, the Martinez camp initially balked at the inclusion of Russert, the well-regarded “Meet The Press” host, as moderator of an October debate sponsored by WFLA-Ch.8 in Tampa. They asked for a Florida journalist — something Gov. Jeb Bush didn’t deign to do when his gubernatorial debates were moderated by Russert. The Martinez excuse waxed lame. Then another debate proposal was deemed too late in the campaign. Castor readily agreed to all debate proposals without qualification.

Finally the Martinez camp yielded to the bad publicity and agreed to the Russert-moderated debate on Oct. 18.But the Russert flap still bedevils Martinez. The perception is this: Russert, known for being painstakingly prepared and adept at follow-ups, would not countenance the sort of debate vehicle Martinez seems to prefer. That is, a forum to wrap himself in the American flag and George Bush’s presidential mantle and not have to answer pressing questions about, say, his independence of the neocon credo or his ideological smear campaign against Bill McCollum.

As for the former USF president and state education commissioner, it appears her campaign didn’t learn enough from the Peter Deutsch primary crucible. That’s when a Deutsch surrogate called into question Castor’s commitment to fighting terrorism by referencing Sami Al-Arian. He’s the computer science professor who has been indicted and imprisoned on terrorist-conspiracy charges. Castor put him on paid leave for two years in the 1990s.

The revisionist cheap shots were seen for what they were and dismissed by the voters.

The issue appeared interred until the Castor campaign exhumed it. In a TV ad that ran in Tallahassee, Jacksonville and Gainesville, Castor says: “Every candidate talks about terrorism, but I’ve dealt with it firsthand. As university president, I took action to remove a suspected terrorist from our campus.”

The Castor campaign wants it both ways. In the primary it said don’t blame her for “only” putting Al-Arian on paid leave and then reinstating him. As USF president, she did as much as she could given the lack of hard evidence, the tenured Al-Arian’s support among the faculty and the more laissez faire pre-Sept.11 era. Be fair. Security-wise, that was then; this is now.

The campaign no longer implies she did what she could, given the inherent limits. In seeking to bolster her national defense bona fides, it now declares her battle-tested from making the gutsy, tough call to take action against a suspected terrorist.

That’s political spin — as well as more revisionism. Something the Martinez campaign has duly noted.

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