Florida is about to be inundated with television ads in the tight U.S. Senate race.
The Democratic and Republican parties each plan to spend $2-million for ads that will start this week. Republicans have reserved another $3.5-million for ads for the last two weeks before the Nov. 2 election.
It is unclear what message the ads will convey about Democrat Betty Castor or Republican Mel Martinez.
Some in the Castor campaign say they expect a flurry of negative ads based on a recent poll paid for by Martinez. Pollsters asked questions about Castor's tenure at a nonprofit education group that lost money; her failure to fire a professor being investigated for possible terrorist ties; and money she received from a group that supports military cuts.
"It shows their hand," said Dan McLaughlin, spokesman for Castor, the former state education commissioner. "They are characteristic of mean, ugly and divisive political strategy."
The poll of 600 Florida voters asked questions that referred to positive and negative attributes of both Castor and Martinez, President Bush's former housing chief, without using their names.
Martinez's campaign said the poll provides necessary research to determine what the reaction would be if a particular issue is brought up by either side or an independent group.
"Every campaign does this to gauge the strength of candidates on the positions," Martinez spokeswoman Jennifer Coxe said. "There's nothing negative about that."
Neither campaign would release specific questions from their polls.
Ruth Lopez, 54, a Democrat who works for a consumer group in Orlando, said she was polled Sept. 15 by Martinez's pollster. She voted for U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch of Hollywood in the Democratic primary but said she plans to vote for Castor in November.
"This isn't like other polls I've had," she said. "I felt there were a couple of offensive questions. It just felt manipulative."
Lopez said the pollster asked questions about a candidate she knew to be Castor. But she said she also was asked about whether she would support a candidate who tried to prevent home construction until schools could absorb the new students or a candidate who was criticized for spending money on first class travel. Both questions refer to Martinez.
"Every pollster will ask message questions," said Martinez, a former trial attorney. "Even in our polls, we would ask "Would you vote for someone who flew first class or was a trial lawyer?' "
David Hill, Martinez's pollster, acknowledged that Lopez was part of his poll. He said she remembers only the negative questions and not the positive ones asked about Castor.
As both sides prepare for a barrage of ads, Florida's Senate race already is drawing plenty of national attention and a parade of big-name supporters. It is one of a handful of states with contested races that could determine whether Republicans maintain their 51-48 majority in the U.S. Senate.
Castor and Martinez started running their own ads two weeks ago in the voter-rich Interstate 4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando. They quickly expanded to four other markets across the state but avoided the expensive Miami market.
Castor already has attacked Martinez in an ad criticizing him for limiting medical research on stem cells, opposing a higher minimum wage and promoting vouchers, Coxe said.
But McLaughlin said Martinez started the attacks when he accused Castor of being naive about terrorism and of taking donations from a group that wants to cut military spending.
Martinez was criticized during the Republican primary for a series of attacks, including one which accused his chief rival of supporting "the radical homosexual lobby."
This week, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senate Committee will begin to spend almost $2-million on ads in Florida.
"Florida is a battleground state," said Cara Morris of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Each of those organizations also is allowed to spend an unlimited amount of money on ads, direct mail and phone calls without coordinating with the campaigns.
The $3.5-million worth of TV ad time reserved by the Republicans starting Oct. 19 would be separate from Martinez's campaign. That figure comes from Castor's campaign, which Republicans declined to confirm.
"We've always known that Florida is a prime opportunity . . . for us and with Mel Martinez as our candidate we feel very optimistic about our chances," said Dan Allen, spokesman for the National Republican Senate committee.
Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Anita Kumar can be reached at kumarsptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.