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A "strategy' not to debate

As the campaign for U.S. Senate moves toward its final month, the candidate who is a former Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers president is showing a surprising lack of interest in rigorous, high-profile debate.

First, Mel Martinez flatly refused an Oct. 18 statewide televised debate so long as it was to be moderated by NBC's no-nonsense newsman Tim Russert, making him perhaps the first Florida candidate, Democrat or Republican, to ever reject that format. Then, his campaign told the public broadcasting channels Martinez simply would not appear in a debate on Oct. 28, five days before the election. His advisers told WEDU "it has nothing to do with scheduling, it's a political strategy not to debate the last week of the campaign."

Jennifer Coxe, spokeswoman for Martinez, was more direct. "Look," she said Tuesday, "we're not going to put ourselves in the position of having to make a decision between campaigning with the president or doing a debate."

So there. When faced with a choice between photo opportunities with President Bush or a statewide televised debate with Democratic opponent Betty Castor, Martinez is telling voters that photo ops come first.

Castor, a former lawmaker and state education commissioner, already has agreed to all three major televised debates _ including one in Miami. Coxe says only that Martinez will agree to the Miami debate, for which no formal date has been set, and some smaller debates in Naples, Tampa and Jacksonville. He also would be willing to appear with Russert, but only on the compressed format of the Sunday morning Meet the Press.

Given the way Martinez conducted his primary race, he has reason to want to avoid a head-to-head debate. Castor spent much of the primary talking about her record of bipartisanship and the sense of political pragmatism she shares with retiring U.S. Sen. Bob Graham. Martinez spent much of his time trying to convince Republicans he is an intolerant ideologue. At one point, Coxe insisted that, "when it comes to social values, he is not a centrist," as though "centrist" was some form of profanity.

In the primary, Martinez did appear in a WEDU debate only four days before the election. But that debate may have left a bad taste in his mouth. On that Friday evening, U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum pulled from his jacket pocket a copy of a last-minute mailing that Martinez had dispatched, depicting McCollum as captive of the "radical homosexual lobby." McCollum called the mailing "despicable" and was at least able use the debate to air his disgust with the campaign tactic.

This time, though, Martinez would rather smile with the president. Don't Floridians deserve better?

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