Betty Castor’s field-trouncing primary win may have finally put the Sami Al-Arian issue to rest — or at least into a politically comatose state.
The Peter Deutsch campaign — via the American Democracy Project — had hoped to fan the flames of controversy and outrage over the indicted, alleged terrorist conspirator. It sought to portray Castor, the former USF president who put the tenured computer science professor on paid administrative leave, as disingenuous and indecisive on Al-Arian — and by extension craven on terrorism, weak on national security and vulnerable to GOP exploitation.
Not only did the ploy not work, but it came across as a counter-productive cheap shot. U.S. Rep. Deutsch lost to Castor by some 30 percentage points — a nearly unheard of margin for a well-financed, battleground senatorial race. As it turned out, it was also bad pandering — Deutsch even lost the endorsement of a key Jewish newspaper in his own South Florida back yard.
As to the Nov. 2 general election showdown with Mel Martinez, the Castor campaign knows that, while virtually anything might seem fair game to the Bush Administration-backed candidate, the GOP brings up Al-Arian at its own peril. And not just out of fear of a cheap-shot back draft.
There’s that George W. Bush presidential campaign photo with Sami and friends at the Florida State Fairgrounds. And then there’s that 2001 Al-Arian visit to the White House. Playing the 9/11 terrorist-revisionist card against Castor on Al-Arian would be a strategic rapier.
At the Castor victory party at Ybor City’s Italian Club, retiring Senator Bob Graham acknowledged the Al-Arian factor has likely played out and stressed that it never should have played in — in the first place.
“It was a silly issue to begin with,” opined Graham, while noting that the FBI never provided Castor with “fire-able” evidence. As for the primary win “inoculating” Castor from the issue in the general election, Graham wouldn’t concede that much substance to the matter.
“Betty isn’t ‘inoculated,’ if you will,” Graham said, “because it was a disease that never had any kick to it.”
With the Republican primary as prologue, however, the Martinez campaign is hardly issue-challenged sans Sami. He and Castor differ on a lot — from foreign policy to abortion.
Martinez, the former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, did more than wrap himself in the mantle of all things presidential. He took no ideological prisoners and earned enough ire from the Bill McCollum campaign to be labeled a practitioner of “the politics of bigotry and hatred.” That angry retort was in response to Martinez having defined McCollum as “anti-family” and “the new darling of the homosexual extremists.”
And McCollum is a fellow Republican conservative.
And Castor is a moderate Democrat.
And Florida is one of a handful of states with an open Senate seat. Control of the Senate — now 51-48 (with one Democrat-aligned, nominal independent) in favor of the Republicans — is very much at stake.
This won’t be pretty — even though Martinez will try to tack back toward the center from the religious-right fringe.Perhaps Deutsch did Castor a favor in preparing her in his own inimitable way.