Senate hopefuls put Al-Arian aside in final debate before election

Sami Al-Arian took a back seat Monday as U.S. Senate hopefuls Mel Martinez and Betty Castor met in their second and final debate at Florida International University in Miami.

Castor’s handling of Al-Arian — a former USF professor indicted in 2003 on more than 50 terrorism charges — while president of the university had dominated the campaign and the duo’s first debate earlier this month, but was the subject of just one question Monday night. Instead, the war in Iraq and minimum wage dominated discussion.

Martinez, the Republican nominee, supported President George W. Bush’s decision to enter Iraq. He also criticized Castor for saying that, with hindsight, she would not vote to approve a war resolution because there have been no weapons of mass destruction discovered.

“She does not believe in the mission,” Martinez said. “At the end of the day, we need a United States senator who is resolute, who is unflinching in the face of terror.”

Castor pledged her support to the military and promised to try to double the number of Special Forces troops.

“I resent the fact that my opponent keeps trying to build the case that I will not be (unflinching in the face of terror),” Castor said.

Castor criticized Martinez’s opposition to a proposed statewide increase to the minimum wage by $1 an hour, saying her opponent favors the rich over the working class.

“My opponent, who believes in tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, for millionaires, wants to deny those people making those low wages,” Castor said.

Martinez recalled walking door to door to try to earn spending money after fleeing Cuba as a teenager and countered that raising the minimum wage to $6.15 an hour would hurt the state’s economy.

“When the minimum wage goes up and it is imposed by government, unfortunately, there will be fewer jobs available,” Martinez said.

Both candidates were seeking independent and uncommitted voters in a closely contested race.

To differ from President Bush’s policies, Martinez said he would provide “an independent voice,” protecting the state’s agriculture industry from unfavorable trade agreements and helping secure funding for the Everglades.

Castor said she disagreed with Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s opposition to the death penalty in most cases. She called the federal No Child Left Behind education program “the biggest bureaucratic mandate” for schools.

The candidates also were at odds over the Bush administration’s policy toward Cuba, a closely watched issue among South Florida’s Cuban-American community. Martinez is attempting to become the first Cuban-American U.S. senator.

Martinez, who helped shape the administration’s Cuba policy, said the goal was to end Fidel Castro’s regime.

“My opponent says I’m not for the Cuban family,” Martinez said. “The biggest enemy for the Cuban family is Fidel Castro.”

Castor said the United States should have a “humanitarian” approach to travel to the communist island, asserting the Bush administration’s policy “doesn’t just hurt Fidel Castro, it hurts Cuban families.

“The recent hurricanes are a good example. Many families wanted to visit their families. Many wanted to send remittances,” Castor said. “We ought to be promoting more exchanges, not fewer exchanges.”