Campaigning on friendly turf, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mel Martinez on Wednesday questioned Democratic rival Betty Castor's support for American troops in Iraq.
It was Martinez's most pointed criticism of Castor in a general election campaign that is starting to emerge from a virtual news blackout caused by a series of deadly hurricanes hitting Florida.
Martinez joined former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani at a Republican rally where he showed a fresh eagerness to turn the Senate race into a referendum on President Bush's war policy.
"We cannot afford to send to Washington a senator who doesn't understand that our troops abroad are liberators and not bullies, as she has called them," Martinez said, as a crowd of about 500 applauded. "When America's threatened, when America's lives are at risk, we must act decisively in the American national interest, and not seek a permission slip from the U.N., as she would say she would have done."
Martinez's criticism of Castor contained echoes of a presidential campaign in which President Bush has made similar comments about Democrat John Kerry.
Castor said Wednesday it appears Martinez is picking up where he left off in a bitter Republican primary fight with former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, who accused Martinez of "hate speech" and "bigotry" for a TV ad and a mailing linking McCollum to a "radical homosexual lobby."
"The ending of his (primary) campaign showed us that we should get ready for an onslaught," Castor said. "These kinds of things are just partisan and silly."
Castor's spokesman, Dan McLaughlin, said she used the word "bully" once, in a Tallahassee Democrat article referring to the White House's approach in world affairs and Bush's failure to forge diplomatic ties with other nations.
"It is a complete lie. Another complete, total lie. That's all Mel Martinez knows how to do," McLaughlin said. "She was critical of the Bush administration, but she has been 1,000 percent supportive of our troops."
He said Castor never used the term "permission slip." Martinez's campaign said the charge was fair, citing a Castor interview with the USF student paper last year, in which she said she favored a "U.N. mandate" for Iraq intervention.
In Orlando, Giuliani heaped praise on Martinez, telling the crowd at the Rosen Plaza Hotel that the former housing secretary brought federal money and moral support to the World Trade Center site in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
"We have the highest regard for Mel," said Giuliani, who also accompanied Martinez at events in West Palm Beach and Miami.
Martinez is eager to talk about terrorism, an issue he feels plays well in Florida, both for the president and himself. Martinez is aligning himself closely with President Bush; he referred in his speech to the "Bush-Martinez team."
The Republican also appeared to want to shift the focus away from the question of whether he's unwilling to face Castor in a statewide TV debate moderated by Tim Russert, the host of NBC's Meet the Press, and sponsored by Florida's NBC affiliates.
Martinez said he's willing to be questioned by Russert on but he said he prefers to be questioned by Florida reporters in a debate.
In an interview before the speech, Martinez said Castor's actions while president of the University of South Florida belie the claims in her new TV ad that she "removed" Sami Al-Arian, a USF computer science professor who was being investigated in the 1990s after he was accused of raising money for terrorists.
Martinez said Castor kept the "terrorist professor" on the school's payroll on administrative leave where he could not teach but still had access to the USF campus.
"Her record," Martinez said, "is one of vacillation in the face of a very difficult situation."
Castor, who placed Al-Arian on paid leave for two years, said she never had sufficient grounds to fire him. It was "the strongest possible action a university president can take against a tenured professor," McLaughlin said.
Al-Arian was indicted last year and then was fired by Castor's successor, Judy Genshaft.
Martinez did not mention the Al-Arian case during his speech Wednesday. He said it made no difference to him that Al-Arian was once photographed with Bush, and that he attended a meeting with other Muslim activists at the White House complex in 2001 with senior adviser Karl Rove.
"The president had no reason to know his resume or anything else," Martinez said. "A lot of people get invited to things."