Former USF president and Democratic nominee Betty Castor and Republican opponent Mel Martinez squared off Monday night in the first of two statewide televised debates. During the debate, moderated by Tim Russert of NBC’s Meet the Press, the candidates touched on issues from terrorism and taxes to abortion and the war in Iraq. The most hotly debated issue, the ad campaigns, was asked about first.
The election has recently garnered national attention, as both parties desperately seek the coveted majority rule. Currently, there are 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one Independent in the U.S. Senate. Even the slightest shift could mean the difference between party control or a tie.
After Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat, announced his retirement earlier this year, both parties eagerly set their sights on the Sunshine State and the hopes of securing their party’s dominance.
After showing an ad by the Martinez campaign suggesting that Castor, while president of USF, knowingly allowed an Islamic terrorist cell to operate at the university under former professor Sami al-Arian and defended it under academic freedom, Russert asked Castor what she would say to Martinez about the commercial.
Castor quickly defended herself by calling the ads unfair, dishonest and hypocritical.
“When news reports first surfaced about possible activities of Mr. al-Arian, I went to the FBI,” Castor said. “I am the person that shut down the think tank, I ensured the safety of the campus and I ultimately put him on administrative leave or suspension. I am the only person that took action,” she said.
She continued to suggest that Sami al-Arian, while under suspicion by the FBI, campaigned for George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, and was invited to the White House three months prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Martinez responded by saying this issue was first introduced by Castor, who suggested that she had suspended al-Arian when in fact she had not.
“She put him on administrative leave, a paid vacation, if you will,” Martinez said. “And then reinstated him a couple of years later.”
Martinez said there was a terrorist cell operating at USF. He pointed to not only al-Arian but also another USF professor, who after leaving the university, went on to head the Islamic Jihad in Damascus, Syria.
“This is not just a group of people planning garden parties,” Martinez said. “These are people who were actually utilizing one of our fine state universities as a terrorist front.”
Following the heated questioning regarding the al-Arian case, which dominated the first 15 minutes of the hour-long debate, Russert asked both candidates if they would pledge to stop running campaign advertising about al-Arian.
“I think we’ve seen enough of this debate,” Castor said. “I am not going to do anything unless I have a pledge from Mr. Martinez that he would remove these despicable ads.”
Martinez said he has only been responding to ads brought forth by Castor.
But when Russert prodded Martinez to agree to Castor’s pledge, he answered by saying, “I am not going to make the strategy for my campaign here tonight, under these lights.”
Russert then asked about the candidates’ position on the war in Iraq. He asked both candidates whether it would have been wiser to use the over $120 billion dollars spent in Iraq to harden the nation’s ports and borders.
“We’ve got to do both,” Martinez said. “But the fact is that I support the decision to have gone to war in Iraq.”
Martinez continued by drawing a link between Saddam Hussein and terrorism, which many, including the 9/11 Commission, have stated was not clearly established.
Castor responded firmly by saying she would not have voted for the war “knowing what I know now: that there are no weapons of mass destruction.”
Russert then turned the questioning to domestic issues, asking about the current flu vaccine crisis. Castor said she is in favor of long-term contracts with the pharmaceutical companies to encourage them to stay in the United States and produce their medicines. Martinez pointed out a discrepancy in some of Castor’s campaign ads about importing drugs from Canada.
Russert also drew attention to Amendment 5, which would raise the minimum wage in Florida by one dollar. Martinez explained how he knew personally what it was like to live in poverty.
“A buck an hour is not going to bring someone out of poverty,” he said. “I want to see people on minimum wage be cycling through that stage of their lives to a better place.”
Castor rebutted, saying “Here is someone who bills himself as part of the American dream, who wants to prevent other Americans from being a part of the American dream.”
There are 400,000 people in this state working at minimum wage, she said. “Who can deny them $40 a week more?”
Among the other issues raised during the debate were the two candidates’ differences on abortion and stem cell research.
“I favor embryonic stem cell research,” Castor said. “There are thousands and thousands of people in this country who are holding out hope for a cure from diseases.”
She explained that she did not, however, support a ban on partial birth abortion.
Martinez is opposed to abortion. He said he could not support the destruction of embryonic stem cells, which contain the possibility of life.
Martinez opposed the use of embryonic stem cells left over from in vitro fertilization for stem cell research.
To close the debate, Russert allowed Castor and Martinez to ask each other a question.
Both candidates focused on taxes, with Castor asking Martinez how he could justify tax breaks for the wealthy when the nation is at war and veterans are not being given proper benefits.
Martinez, in turn, asked Castor why she supported increasing taxes on small businesses.
She said she had no such tax plan.