Castor gets funding boost from Web site

Critics have said Betty Castor cannot adequately compete in the bid for U.S. Senate because she is unable to draw funding as well as her opposition.

But now the Castor campaign is surging, more than tripling the fund-raising frontrunner, U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch, over the past three months, thanks in large part to the Web site opened by the campaign in late May.

“We’ve got an amazing Web site. We’ve raised about $74,000 since it has been up, and it’s only been up for six weeks,” said Larry Biddle, deputy campaign manager for Castor.

Biddle, who served on the campaign of former Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean before joining Castor in April, said the campaign has raised more than $1.5 million in the last three months. Deutsch, who leads the three Democratic candidates vying for the nomination with more than $4.4 million raised, earned about $500,000 during the same time frame, while Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas collected more than $600,000.

Castor, who served as Florida’s education commissioner from 1986-1994 and is a former USF president, is also ahead in most polls. She has about $2.2 million in her campaign account, Biddle said. However, Biddle said, while Castor may not be ahead in money, her Web site gives her a huge advantage to maintain her lead in the polls.

According to Biddle, about 5,200 of Castor’s 10,000 donors made their donations in the weeks after the Web site opened.

“The design is backwards (on competitors’ Web sites); their design is about them, the candidates,” Biddle said. “Ours is the other way around, addressing the public and their concerns. We have the resources there for people who want to get involved but have never known how to get started.

“The Web site is, frankly, cool and exciting. Others’ sites don’t have the same appeal,” Biddle said, adding that the Internet has proven to be a powerful tool for Castor to get young voters involved in her campaign.

Biddle said the Dean campaign used the Internet in a similar fashion, and it was there that he learned how valuable a tool the Web can be.

“We revolutionized politics on the Dean campaign, particularly in our use of the Internet,” Biddle said. “We brought politics to the home. People could contribute and participate sitting at their home in their pajamas. That is the same thing we are going for and, I think, accomplishing with this campaign.”

Castor has been in the news in recent weeks because of Deutsch criticism of her handling of the Sami Al-Arian case while USF president.

Al-Arian, a former computer science professor at USF, was indicted in February 2003 on more than 50 terrorism-related charges. Castor was cautious in her handling of the situation, as Al-Arian was a tenured professor, who was not facing criminal charges during Castor’s time as president. She did not fire him for these reasons, but, Deutsch has said, she should have.

Biddle, however, says that he does not think the attack has changed the public’s perception of Castor.

“I don’t believe at all that it hurt her,” he said. “I believe it is an issue of negative campaigning against positive campaigning. It’s very appropriate to question someone, but it is inappropriate to campaign on personal attacks … it will be up to voters to decide which side of the fence (Deutsch’s comments) fall on.”