Key Senate Race In Florida Heats Up With Big TV Buys

A number of big-name Florida politicians are lining up advertising for what should be a hotly contested and very expensive Senate race.

Candidates, who have until June 30 to file their registrations for the Democratic and Republican primaries, both set for Aug. 31, have already begun to spend what some think will total more than $50-60 million by election day in November.

The seat, being vacated by Democrat Bob Graham, who is retiring, is highly desirable for both sides, given Florida’s importance in the presidential race and the Republicans’ razor-thin majority in the U.S. Senate.

Rep. Peter Deutsch, a Democrat, and Florida businessman Doug Gallagher, a Republican, are the first candidates to make significant TV buys.

On June 18, Gallagher’s camp launched a three-week, $1.3 million TV buy across the state. Meanwhile, Deutsch is spending several hundred thousand dollars over a two-week period, focusing on the Panhandle.

Gallagher is positioning himself as a political outsider, stressing that he is neither a lawyer nor part of the Washington establishment. Deutsch, meanwhile, is focusing on his record in Congress. One spot features the family of a 9-year-old boy who was murdered and Deutsch’s crusade for better child-protection laws. Another highlights his efforts to get emergency relief to fishermen in the southern part of the state after Hurricane George in 1998.

Deutsch also began a radio campaign last week aimed at black voters.

Other hot-ticket Democratic contenders in the race include Miami-Dade County mayor Alex Penelas and three-term state senator Betty Castor. On the Republican side, the front-runners are Bill McCollum, a former congressman, and Mel Martinez, the former housing secretary in the Bush administration. State house speaker Johnnie Byrd, a Republican, is also in the race.

Penelas and Byrd have made small TV buys, but Gallagher and Deutsch’s splash signals that the real spending has begun. Gallagher’s ads have also stirred controversy. Martinez condemned them as an attack on President Bush and Republicans in Washington and called for an apology from the candidate.

The GOP is lining up behind Martinez. A rep for his campaign declined to say when advertising will launch, but one source with the campaign pointed to the first week of July.

“Everyone in the Cuban community is expected to turn out this time around, especially for Mel Martinez, who would be the first Cuban-born senator in the U.S. He’s very popular in the southern part of state,” said one Republican media strategist. That strategist pegged media spending in Florida to easily reach $40 million, not including below-the-line dollars.

“A lot of money will be poured into Naples, Jacksonville, Pensicola and Tampa, as opposed to Miami, which is very expensive,” said a rep for one of the campaigns.

Martinez and Gallagher have both put together biographical presentations on DVDs that have been distributed by the thousands to party members and constituents.

Former vice president Al Gore chimed in on the proceedings two weeks ago, praising Deutsch while, in an e-mail to the Miami Herald, accusing Penelas of being treacherous and dishonest. “Penelas has been booed at a couple of recent events. Between his handling of Elian Gonzales and corruption issues, the Gore attack was the cherry on the cake,” said a source.