Fla. Poll: Only Martinez Can Beat Democrat

A new Florida poll shows that only Republican candidate Mel Martinez could beat the likely Democratic candidate in the hotly contested Senate race.

The latest Mason-Dixon poll out this weekend found that if the election were held today, Martinez would pull 39 percent of the vote and match Betty Castor’s 39 percent. Castor is likely to win the Democratic primary.

But the same poll found that Castor would trounce Republican Bill McCollum, beating the former congressman 44 percent to 39 percent.

McCollum, who ran for Senate in 2000 and lost handily to Democrat Bill Nelson, has been the front-runner for much of the Republican primary owing to his early entry into the race, his statewide organization and his successful fund-raising.

But the former HUD secretary, who entered the race late, has gained enormous ground as McCollum failed to catch fire this time.

The Mason-Dixon poll shows McCollum still leading the Republican pack with 29 percent of likely Republican voters, with Martinez not far behind at 24 percent.

The poll indicates that the race has become a two-way race between McCollum and Martinez.

The six other Republican candidates trail well behind them. Florida House speaker Johnnie Byrd garnered just 7 perecent of the vote, and former Judicial Watch Chairman Larry Klayman was well behind at 2 percent.

The momentum is clearly on the side of Martinez, who has moved up dramatically in the polls at the same time he has won major Republican endorsements from Jack Kemp and 16 Republican U.S. senators, including Sens. Rick Santorum and George Allen.

Beating the Democrat this November is critical for Republicans, who want to keep a liberal Democrat like Betty Castor out of the Senate. The Republican selection also could have national implications, with many Republicans believing that Martinez’s candidacy would help George Bush win Florida.

In the Democratic race, the Mason-Dixon poll found Castor with 37 percent of the vote, well ahead of her two leading rivals, Congressman Peter Deutsch with 21 percent and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas with 10 percent.

Castor, the former commissioner of education and former president of the University of South Florida, has the backing of former Attorney General Janet Reno and her political machine.

Castor has also made “getting Rush Limbaugh” part of her campaign platform. Speaking before a group in Palm Beach, Castor was asked if she and her son, a Palm Beach prosecutor, would “help put Limbaugh away.”

The Senate hopeful said, “It’s the best suggestion I’ve had today.”

Castor’s far left activism has even worried some Democrats, who are backing a group called the American Democracy Project.

The project has taken out newspaper ads and Web advertisements criticizing Castor for turning the University of South Florida into “Jihad University” during her tenure there.

The group contends that as president Castor knew a terror cell linked to the Islamic Jihad operated freely on campus, but she did nothing to stop it. The group noted that Sam Al-Arian, a former USF professor, has been jailed on charges of conspiracy to murder, and another professor is said to be the worldwide head of Islamic Jihad.