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SINK WON'T RUN FOR SENATE

With no clear front-runner from either party, Mel Martinez's seat is up for grabs.

Chief financial officer Alex Sink, widely seen as the Democrats' strongest candidate to win Florida's open U.S. Senate seat, took her name out of the mix Friday and announced she would instead run for re-election to the state Cabinet.

"Over the past several weeks, I have given serious and careful thought to my own future and, more importantly, to the future of our state,'' said Sink, 60, who had been aggressively recruited by the national Democratic party, but by some accounts was more interested in aiming for governor in 2014.

"I believe my skills and abilities are of greatest use here in Florida, where I am honored to serve as chief financial officer. And I will run for re-election as chief financial officer to continue being a fiscal watchdog on behalf of the people of Florida."

Much as Jeb Bush overshadowed the potential field of Republican U.S. Senate candidates, Sink's sudden absence sets the stage for a free-for-all Democratic primary. It's all the more unpredictable on the Democratic side because at the moment there is no candidate with a Florida-wide profile, and none from Tampa Bay, which has long been the strongest geographic base for a statewide candidate.

By some estimates it takes at least $20-million to run a credible Senate campaign in a state as big as Florida and possibly more if a candidate is as little known as most of the would-be contenders.

"To get 40 percent name recognition in the state of Florida costs 5- or 6-million dollars,'' said Democratic pollster Dave Beattie, whose clients include Sink.

U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, launched his Senate campaign Tuesday, and state Sen. Dan Gelber, 48, said he will officially enter the race soon. U.S. Reps. Allen Boyd, 63, of Monticello and Ron Klein, 51, of Boca Raton also are looking at running for the nomination.

"You have two or three people from South Florida and nobody from I-4 north, but I do not think this will end up being a South Florida-only race,'' Democratic consultant Screven Watson said of the Senate race that could determine whether Democrats gain a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. "I think this is going to set up a situation where Allen Boyd is more likely than not to run."

But Boyd, as leader of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, is one of the most influential members of Congress and would give up a lot to run.

"I love serving the people of North Florida in the House of Representatives, but I'm considering a Senate run because of the very serious challenges facing my fellow Floridians,'' Boyd said. "I'm not going to drag this out. I'm very close to a decision and will make my decision public."

Incumbent Republican Mel Martinez announced barely seven weeks ago that he would not run for a second term in 2010, setting a scramble among Florida politicians eyeing a rare open Senate seat. As it stands now, both parties have a strong pool of contenders but no overwhelming front-runner.

The only potential candidate with experience running statewide is Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican who has run unsuccessfully for the office twice before. Other Republicans considering it include U.S. Reps. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota and Connie Mack IV of Fort Myers, and former state House Speakers Allan Bense of Panama City and Marco Rubio of Miami.

Wes Allison contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.

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