Former USF President and Democratic nominee Betty Castor will face off against Republican Mel Martinez tonight in the first of two televised Senatorial debates before the Nov. 2 election.
A poll released Oct. 12 gave Martinez a five-point edge in the race to fill the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Bob Graham. Castor has since closed the gap, however, with most polls showing the two in a dead heat.
The debate will give the candidates a break from what has turned into a bitter campaign for one of the races that could help decide control of the Senate. Recent ads from Martinez’s campaign have blasted Castor for her handling of the Sami al-Arian case while president of USF. Castor has responded with an ad saying Martinez allowed al-Arian to campaign with George W. Bush in 2000 when Martinez was co-chairman of Bush’s Florida campaign.
Al-Arian, a former USF professor, was indicted in February 2003 on more than 50 counts of terrorism-related charges.
Castor campaigned in Tallahassee on Sunday with Graham and former State University System Chancellor Charlie Reed, who both said she sought the ouster al-Arian.
“It’s very unfortunate that this has become such a trigger issue in the campaign,” Castor said during a Sunday interview in Miami.
A spokeswoman for Martinez insisted Castor failed to act decisively.
“Chancellor Reed confirmed what we’ve said all along,” Martinez spokeswoman Jennifer Coxe said Sunday. “She called him because she didn’t know what to do about it.”
The debate will be held at the studios of WFLA-TV in Tampa and broadcast throughout Florida on NBC affiliates beginning at 7 p.m. EDT.
Tim Russert of NBC’s Meet the Press will moderate the debate. The second and final debate of the race will be held Oct. 25 in Miami.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.