As if Hurricane Frances weren't enough, a political storm is roiling Florida's U.S. Senate race, fueled by hard-hitting accusations that Republican nominee Mel R. Martinez leveled against his chief rival in the closing days of this past Tuesday's GOP primary.

The attacks infuriated some prominent Republicans, and Democrats hope the discord will help their nominee, Betty Castor, win the closely watched contest to succeed retiring Sen. Bob Graham (D).

President Bush handpicked Martinez, his former housing and urban development secretary, to run for the seat, in part because Martinez was considered more centrist than early GOP front-runner Bill McCollum. McCollum, a solidly conservative former House member, lost the 2000 Senate race to Democrat Bill Nelson, and many Republicans felt they needed a more moderate nominee this year.

But Martinez's campaign was hardly moderate in its homestretch assault on McCollum. First, it arranged a conference call by conservative religious leaders who challenged McCollum's integrity because of his support of embryonic stem cell research and a hate crimes bill. Enraged, former Republican senator Connie Mack wrote to more than 15,000 state GOP activists, saying Martinez's campaign "sunk to a new low in Florida politics" by launching a "mean-spirited, desperate and personal attack" that would "only hurt our party and doom us in November."

A few days later, the Martinez campaign labeled McCollum "the new darling of the extreme homosexuals" because he had supported including protections for gays in a failed federal hate-crimes bill. Editorial pages condemned the comment, and the St. Petersburg Times withdrew its endorsement of Martinez.

Martinez, who had trailed in several polls, won the primary with 45 percent of the vote to McCollum's 31 percent. Martinez and his allies in the GOP establishment immediately tried to heal the hurts.

"I intend to reach out to [McCollum] in a way that will erase the problems that have existed," Martinez said the day after the election. "I'll do right by Bill; he's a good man." He said that "things might have been done better" and blamed "a breakdown in our campaign at some level." Republican National Convention organizers quickly gave Martinez a Thursday night speaking slot in New York less than an hour before Bush accepted his renomination.

An unplacated McCollum, however, refused to endorse Martinez, at least until they meet sometime this week.

Florida Democrats, meanwhile, are all sweetness and harmony. Castor, a former state legislator and state education commissioner, won the nomination comfortably. Her chief rivals, Rep. Peter Deutsch and Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, quickly endorsed her, as did the still-popular Graham, a former governor. Party activists, reveling in the GOP infighting, say Martinez moved so far right to win the nomination that he won't be able to inch back to the political center for the general election in the closely divided state.

Beneath the Democrats' glee, however, is a nagging worry. The Cuban-born Martinez might lure more Hispanic votes than usual to the GOP column on Nov. 2. That's a scary thought for Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry in a state that proved so crucial to the outcome of the 2000 presidential race.

Abortion Foes Attack Murkowski

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), facing a stiff challenge from former Alaska governor Tony Knowles (D) this fall, is under attack from a source generally associated with shots at Democrats.

The antiabortion group American Life League counts the senator among its "deadly dozen" Roman Catholic politicians who favor abortion rights. In ads recently placed in a Catholic weekly newsletter and the Washington Times, the league urges the church to withhold Holy Communion from Murkowski and the other 11 because of their opposition to church doctrine on abortion, the Associated Press reported. The ad lists three other pro-abortion-rights Republicans: California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, New York Gov. George E. Pataki and Sen. Susan Collins (Maine). The eight Democrats on the list include Kerry and fellow Massachusetts senator Edward M. Kennedy.

Murkowski was appointed to the Senate by her father, Frank Murkowski, when he left the seat and became Alaska's governor. She is making her first run for the office, and polls show a tight race with Knowles.


"We need to turn this into a personal crusade where each and every one of us makes a list of people we can affect and make personal commitments to ask people to support this president. That is how we are going to win."

-- White House adviser Karl Rove talking to Republican convention delegates last week from West Virginia, Washington and Vermont.

Florida Republicans have a headache and they got it from their primary election for U.S. Senate last Tuesday. The winner, Mel R. Martinez, left, defeated Bill McCollum, right, after accusations McCollum may not forget.