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Florida Senate Candidates Face Off in First Debate

The first questions from moderator Tim Russert focused on Sami al-Arian, a former University of South Florida professor who has been linked to terrorist groups in the Middle East. Al-Arian was a professor at USF when Castor served as the university’s president during the 1990s.

Castor originally placed al-Arian on administrative leave after he was accused of illegally raising money for Palestinian militant groups but later reinstated him when no charges were filed. Al-Arian was arrested in 2003, after Castor had left USF.

Republican and Democratic primary opponents have criticized Castor for her actions in the al-Arian case. Martinez has run ads accusing Castor of being too soft on al-Arian by allowing him to remain employed at the university while being investigated by federal authorities.

However, al-Arian’s appearance in photos with President George W. Bush at a campaign event in Plant City, Fla. in 2000 and at a White House meeting for Muslim leaders in 2001 further complicate the issue.

“Security is pretty high there (the White House),” Castor said Monday. “After he is under suspicion for all of these years, how could he get this kind of invitation?”

Castor also said Martinez had unfairly portrayed her in campaign ads.

“Mr. Martinez has spent several million dollars on ads that depict me and the situation at the University of South Florida when I was the president,” Castor said Monday. “I think they are unfair. I think they are dishonest, and I think they are hypocritical.”

Castor said that when she first heard of al-Arian’s alleged activities she contacted the FBI and worked with them throughout the investigation, eventually suspending him and shutting down an Islamic studies center he was involved in on campus. She said the university kept him on the university’s payroll because she lacked enough evidence to fire him.

“I am the only person that took action, no one else was there,” Castor said Monday.

Castor also fired back at Martinez, who was President Bush’s Florida campaign chairman and later served in his Cabinet as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, over the photos of al-Arian with the president in Plant City and at the White House.

Martinez countered that he was not in charge of security for the president, adding that Castor’s questions should be directed to the Secret Service.

Martinez took issue with Castor’s assertion that she had “suspended” al-Arian, arguing that the administrative leave Castor imposed was more like a “paid vacation.”

The Republican candidate further blasted Castor for allowing what he called a terrorist “cell” to operate on USF’s campus, asserting that al-Arian associates had also engaged in illegal activity.

“This is not just a group of people planning garden parties,” Martinez said. “They were utilizing one of our fine state universities as a cover of a terrorist front for several years under her watch. I thought it was a failure of leadership.”

Although the candidates took each other to task over the al-Arian flap, they addressed a series of issues in Monday’s clash.

Although both candidates said that the United States must now prevail in Iraq, they differed on President Bush’s decision to go to war.

Castor said she felt the decision was made based on “faulty intelligence” and considering all that has unfolded since the war began she would not have voted to send in troops.

Martinez said that he would have voted to invade Iraq, even knowing that coalition forces would find no weapons of mass destruction. He said the removal of Saddam Hussein, who had the “the intent and had been supporting terrorists,” has made the world safer.

A question on Social Security highlighted further differences between the candidates.

Martinez said he is for allowing younger workers to put a portion of their Social Security funds in private accounts in hopes of getting a better return than the average of 2 percent, which he said the government program now pays. Martinez said he would keep the system as is for current retirees.

Castor said she is not for privatizing Social Security in any way.

“There are 3 million Social Security recipients in this state,” she said. “We cannot afford to put them at risk.”

The candidates sparred over another issue important to Sunshine State seniors, prescription drugs.

Castor said Martinez was trying to stand on both sides of the issue by President Bush’s prescription drug bill, which bans re-importation of cheaper drugs from countries like Canada, while telling Florida seniors that he is for re-importation.

Martinez argued that he supported the bill because he felt seniors needed the prescription drug benefit that it contained but he did not support the provision that bans re-importation. He said he disagrees with the president on that issue and is for re-importation if it can be done safely.

The candidates clashed on other medical issues as well, including abortion and stem cell research.

Martinez, who opposes abortion, said political leaders should encourage a “culture of life.” He said he became convinced that adoption is a realistic alternative to abortion when he and his wife Kitty adopted their first child.

When asked by Russert who should be prosecuted, the woman or her doctor, if abortion is made illegal, Martinez responded that women who face such decision need “compassion” and assistance.

“The bottom line is I don’t plan on prosecuting anyone,” Martinez said. “When I go to the United States Senate, I’m going to be confirming judges who will go to the courts and the courts will deal with this issue. This is not up for a vote by the United States Senate.”

Castor said she believes abortion should be “rare, safe, and legal,” but that women have a legal right to choose an abortion.

“I think choice should be an option for women to make with their families, with their spouses, with their religious leaders,” Castor said, adding she would fight to uphold the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which gave women the right to an abortion.

On the matter of stem cells, Martinez said he does not favor the opening of new embryonic stem cell “lines” for medical research but does support research with existing lines.

Castor said she supports the opening of new embryonic stem cell lines for medical research, which she said would help many Americans who suffer from debilitating diseases and injuries.

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