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Castor concedes Florida Senate race

Seat will change into GOP hands

Polls showed Mel Martinez, above, and Betty Castor in a dead heat up to the election.
Senate: FL Updated: 5:33 p.m. ET
Martinez 50%
Castor 48%
100% precincts reporting
Election Results Main Page

(CNN) -- Democrat Betty Castor, trailing by about 80,000 votes, conceded the race for the vacant Florida Senate seat on Wednesday morning.

The post was vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, and Mel Martinez's victory represented a pick up for the Republican Party.

The race featured two candidates in a race that was under the microscope, analyzed by the national media and by political insiders for indicators of how Florida might swing in the presidential election. The election was also viewed as a key race that could help determine party control of the Senate.

Castor, the state's former state school superintendent, hung surprisingly tough against Martinez, a former Cabinet official in the Bush administration, as the race headed into the final week.

A Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times poll showed Martinez and Castor in a dead heat -- both with 44 percent (the poll had a 3 percent margin for error).

Martinez, 58, came to the United States from Cuba at age 15, unable to speak English, and was joined four years later by his family. He earned a law degree at Florida State University and worked as a trial lawyer, until running for Lieutenant Governor in 1994. He lost that race, but in 1998 was elected chairman of the Orange County Commission. In 2000, he was appointed Housing and Urban Development secretary, where President Bush called him "the embodiment of the American Dream."

Castor, 63, grew up in Glassboro, New Jersey. She first tasted public service as part of a U.S. mission to Uganda celebrating that country's independence. She stayed two years and while there, led a group of teenage girls to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, calling the expedition "a great life experience."

Castor became the first woman to earn a seat on the Hillsborough County Commission in 1972. Four years later, she was elected to the Florida Senate. From 1987 to 1993, she served as state education commissioner, then, in 1994, became President of the University of South Florida. She left USF in 1999 and recently has served as president and CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

While Castor led USF to strong growth, she came under fire because of her handling of a case involving one of the university's professors, Sami al-Arian, who was suspected of raising money through university groups for Islamic Jihad. Castor suspended al-Arian with pay, but reinstated him two years later, after deciding there was no evidence against him. She condemned Islamic Jihad and terrorism, but not al-Arian, who was later arrested on terrorism charges and is incarcerated in a Florida jail.

During debates, Castor and Martinez clashed on a number of issues, including her handling of the al-Arian matter. Countering Martinez' criticism that she did not do enough to rid the campus of al-Arian, Castor said she was the only person who took action against him, according to The Associated Press, noting that President Bush met with the suspect during a 2000 campaign stop in Florida.

The Associated Press reported that during their final debate, Martinez said he backed the president's decision to enter Iraq, challenging comments by Castor that she would not vote to approve the war resolution -- "knowing what I know now" -- because weapons of mass destruction were not been discovered there.

The two also disagreed on raising the minimum wage (Castor supported an increase and Martinez did not) and a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages (Castor said she opposed an amendment because she believed it would be "divisive," while Martinez supported it, saying that it would restrain "activist judges").

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