Polls show Martinez pulling away in Senate race

As the race for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Bob Graham heats up, former USF President Betty Castor finds herself slipping in polls across the state.

According to a Mason-Dixon poll released Friday, Republican nominee Mel Martinez leads Democrat Castor by five points. News agencies across the state are reporting Castor losing the race in regions she will likely need strong support from to win, including North Florida and the Tampa Bay area.

Martinez “even has a narrow lead in the Gulf Coast region, which includes Castor’s home area of Tampa Bay,” Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc., told the Tallahassee Democrat.

Polls have also revealed that the issue of terrorism is playing a large part in the campaign. Castor’s handling of the Sami al-Arian case while USF president remains a major concern, with Castor continuing to receive criticism for not firing or suspending the former USF professor, indicted in February 2003 on more than 50 counts of terrorism-related charges.

Castor has tried to focus the campaign on issues other than terrorism, but Martinez has also drawn support.

Vice President Dick Cheney told a crowd of supporters Saturday that electing Martinez — a former Bush administration Housing secretary — to the U.S. Senate will help President George W. Bush with the war on terror, extending tax cuts and nominating judges.

Cheney also said Martinez would help the president with his efforts to limit damages in medical-malpractice lawsuits – perhaps the only area where Martinez has an obvious difference with the president.

Martinez, a former trial lawyer, supports a $500,000 cap on noneconomic damages in medical-malpractice lawsuits, twice the amount favored by Bush.

Martinez’s opponents in the Republican primary each attacked him for his trial-lawyer background and for not backing the lower limits.

Still, Cheney told 200 people at a Martinez fund-raiser: “With Mel’s support, we will work to end lawsuit abuse. We know that it’s a lot easier for America’s businesses to hire new workers if they don’t have to keep defending themselves against frivolous lawsuits. And with Mel’s support, we will work for medical liability reform to reduce the costs that are driving many doctors out of practice.”

Bush and Cheney have criticized Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry for choosing a trial lawyer, Sen. John Edwards, as his running mate.

The Castor campaign called his position on tort reform “the most clear-cut, inexplicable, 360-degree flip-flop.”

Campaign officials noted that as head of the Florida Academy of Trial Lawyers in the late 1980s, Martinez led the organization’s opposition to tort reform.

Martinez, who served three years on Bush’s Cabinet, resigned as Housing and Urban Development secretary last December and announced his Senate candidacy a month later. It is widely thought the White House recruited him to run for the seat being vacated by Democrat Bob Graham.

“I got to know Mel during his time as HUD secretary, and he was an outstanding member of the president’s team,” Cheney told the group.

“He led an agency dedicated to increasing home ownership among Americans of all backgrounds, and he did that job with commitment, with skill and with complete integrity.”

McLaughlin countered that Martinez left behind a housing system “in shambles” and blocked the release of a study of whether the nation’s two biggest mortgage lenders discriminated against minorities.

“He killed an investigation into discrimination and all of the figures show he did not increase home ownership among minorities,” McLaughlin said.

Information from the Associated Presswas used in this report.