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Russert to moderate Martinez-Castor debate

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mel Martinez has reconsidered and will face Democrat Betty Castor next month in a televised debate moderated by NBC's Tim Russert.

The debate will be broadcast live from 7 to 8 p.m. on Oct. 18 on Florida's NBC stations, and will originate from WFLA-Ch. 8 in Tampa. Russert, host of NBC's Meet the Press, is known for being prepared and asking penetrating questions.

For about a week, Martinez resisted appearing in a debate with Russert as moderator and said he wanted Florida reporters to ask questions. That brought him criticism from Castor's camp and from editorial writers.

Two days ago, Martinez said, "Campaigns do use certain strategy in where they choose to debate and not to debate."

He said he opposed "a national figure coming down here, sort of to name how debates were going to be set," but hinted at a willingness to compromise.

Martinez spokeswoman Jennifer Coxe said Friday he changed his mind after WFLA agreed to let the candidates stand at lecterns, and because the Russert episode "was becoming a distraction." Coxe also said the change came about because Castor was unwilling to participate in other debates. Castor's campaign, however, denied that was the case.

"We were frustrated that he was trying to impose conditions on the media, including who should moderate them," said Castor's spokesman, Dan McLaughlin.

Castor's campaign has not committed to another statewide debate sponsored by Florida's Post-Newsweek stations, including WPLG-Ch. 10 in Miami and WJXT-Ch. 4 in Jacksonville, and others. Castor wants that debate to be in the last week of the race.

Martinez has rejected an Oct. 28 debate on WEDU-Ch. 3, and other public TV stations, saying it's too close to the Nov. 2 election. He suggested Oct. 22 instead.

A third possible debate is being proposed by the Miami Herald and Miami's WFOR-Ch. 4 in late October, but negotiations continue.

Recent polls show the race is a tossup. A Quinnipiac University survey released Thursday showed Castor leading, 43 percent to 42 percent, among likely voters, with the rest undecided.