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Martinez rejects Oct. 28 TV debate with Castor

U.S. Senate candidate Mel Martinez refused Monday to debate rival Betty Castor the week before the Nov. 2 general election, marking the second time the Republican has balked at a major, statewide debate.

Media organizations are trying to organize six televised debates between Castor, the Democratic candidate, and Martinez, a Republican, but none have been scheduled so far.

Castor agreed to an Oct. 28 debate sponsored by WEDU-Ch. 3 in Tampa, but the Martinez campaign staff said they do not want to commit to a week likely to be packed with campaign activities.

The campaign "told me three times on the phone that it has nothing to do with scheduling, it's a political strategy not to debate the last week of the campaign," said Paul Grove, WEDU vice president of national programming and production.

Martinez spokeswoman Jennifer Coxe said participating in a WEDU debate before the primary caused Martinez to miss campaigning with President Bush. She said they have suggested moving the debate to an earlier date.

But Castor spokesman Dan McLaughlin accused Martinez of "ducking the tough question."

"This is a story about whether or not he will debate at a time in the campaign when people are paying attention," he said. "If they won't debate, what public forum is left?"

Martinez's campaign objected last week to using Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert in an October debate sponsored by WFLA-Ch. 8 in Tampa. Coxe said Martinez would prefer to have a Florida journalist ask questions.

Meanwhile, Castor began airing new commercials Monday. One attacks Martinez for limiting medical research on stem cells, opposing a higher minimum wage and promoting vouchers, which the Castor campaign says hurts public schools.

The ads will be airing in six media markets, including Tampa and Orlando, the homes of the two candidates.

In another ad, Castor alludes to tough decisions she made when former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian was being investigated for allegedly raising money for terrorists while she was USF president.

"Every candidate talks about terrorism, but I've dealt with it firsthand," she says in the ad. "As university president, I took action to remove a suspected terrorist from our campus."

She put Al-Arian on paid administrative leave for two years and hired a lawyer to look into the allegations against him. Al-Arian was indicted last year and fired by Castor's successor, Judy Genshaft.

"Obviously, Betty Castor has some extraordinary sensitivity to this issue, and her ad begs more questions than it answers," Coxe said.

Martinez began airing his first television ads of the general election campaign last week, focusing on his journey from a child in communist Cuba to a member of President Bush's Cabinet.

Times staff writer Adam Smith contributed to this report.