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Senate candidates lock horns

Betty Castor’s handling of the Sami al-Arian case while USF president remained a hot topic Thursday in the last debate between the top three Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate before the primaries.

While Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas urged his opponents to drop the issue, U.S. Congressman Peter Deutsch took several shots at Castor, who he said did not take strong enough actions against the former USF professor.

Al-Arian was indicted in February 2003 on more than 50 terrorism-related charges. Castor, who was president of the university from 1993 to 1999, said she never received enough information to warrant firing al-Arian. Deutsch said she received an affidavit from the FBI indicating he may be involved, but Castor said that was still not proof.

“Peter is an attorney, and he knows that an affidavit is not an indictment. He knows that an affidavit is not proof,” Castor said. “I did suspend Dr. al-Arian, we did do an independent investigation. I couldn’t agree more with (Penelas); as we sit here tonight, there are a lot of people in this state that want to hear about the issues.”

Deutsch said Castor did not suspend al-Arian, but rather placed him on administrative leave, to which Castor replied, “Whatever you call it.”

Later during the statewide-televised debate, Penelas asked Deutsch to stop running ads attacking Castor’s handling of the issue. Deutsch responded by saying he does not “see the ads as critical; if you look at the words, they are factual.” After Deutsch elaborated for nearly a minute, Penelas criticized him for failing to answer the question.

Castor, who leads the polls with 45 percent to Deutsch’s 31 and Penelas’ nine, appeared on television to be holding back a grin after Deutsch’s response. When told that she would ask the next question, directed at Duetsch, the audience laughed and Castor stuttered through the beginning of her question, as she seemed to suppress laughter.

Penelas later asked Castor the same question regarding ads focusing on criticisms of Deutsch in the media. Castor said she would be happy to stop the ads as soon as Deutsch pulled his. Penelas thanked her, because she “at least answered the question.”

Throughout the debate, Penelas was trying to get Castor and Deutsch to stop attacking each other and stick to discussing the issues. Among the issues Penelas said were really important were health care and the American occupation of Iraq.

“I am the only Democrat (in the race) that has said we need to bring our troops home,” Penelas said. Castor and Deutsch both said American soldiers should stay in Iraq until a stable government is in place. Penelas, however, said a top priority for America should be to form a multinational force to insure the freedom of the Iraqi people.

On health care, which Castor said would be “the defining issue of the campaign,” the candidates all claimed to support universal health care for all Americans.

“The thing about universal health care is, we’ve been talking about it for 20 years,” Penelas said. “Meanwhile, the number of uninsured Americans is actually rising.”

More than 45 million Americans are uninsured, Deutsch said, with more than 3 million in Florida. He said he would like all Americans to have “the same health benefits I am given as a member of Congress.”

The debate, broadcast statewide on PBS, lasted about one hour. PBS will broadcast the final Republican debate before the primaries tonight.