Democrat Betty Castor and Republican Mel Martinez tangled over jobs and the war in Iraq again Friday as both appealed to voters in the Panama City in their tight race for the U.S. Senate.
Castor focused on economic issues, promising to secure manufacturing jobs that are at risk of being sent overseas, and took a swipe at Martinez for outsourcing by La-Z-Boy Inc. Martinez is on the company's board of directors.
"I will work as hard as I can to keep the businesses and to keep the companies and especially the manufacturers here in this country, keeping the jobs here," Castor said in Panama City.
Martinez, meanwhile, continued to accuse Castor, a former state education commissioner and university president, of being soft on the war in Iraq.
The former U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary reminded about 100 supporters at GOP headquarters in Pensacola that Castor has said she would have voted against the Iraq invasion if she had known what she knows now, such as the lack of weapons of mass destruction.
"That's a mistake," Martinez said. "That's the wrong kind of thinking. That's bad judgment at the time of war."
During an appearance in Panama City with Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Martinez criticized Castor's handling of allegations of terrorism against former professor Sami Al-Arian at the University of South Florida.
"She gave him pay raises and hoped the problem would go away. Terrorists seek to harm us and they masquerade as college professors while Betty Castor tries to be politically correct," Martinez said on a day when a message from Osama bin Laden emerged in the United States.
Castor, joined by former U.S. Rep. Pete Peterson, a prisoner of war in Vietnam and later U.S. ambassador there, stressed her commitment to the military.
"We must keep faith with the young men and women who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan," Castor said during a stop in Gulf Breeze, a Pensacola suburb.
Some Castor supporters said they thought the Iraq war may strip away some military support from Martinez.
Vietnam veteran Gary Butler, 59, of Panama City, said he has heard many military people complaining about a lack of pay raises and questioning the reasons for the war.
"We know what them boys are going through in Iraq and they're over there fighting an oil war," Butler said.
The Panhandle has become a difficult region for Democrats. It is more conservative than most other parts of Florida, with large numbers of veterans and military voters at its many bases.
Earlier Friday in Tallahassee, Castor latched onto reports that La-Z-Boy announced in August it would outsource about 650 jobs. The company said it decided to lay off U.S. workers when antidumping tariffs against Chinese producers failed to stem a glut of bedroom furniture.
"How can we trust someone like Mel Martinez to fight to keep jobs here at home when he himself was part of a corporate board that voted to send American jobs overseas?" Castor asked.
Her campaign has said she would support tax incentives for corporations creating jobs at home while eliminating incentives for companies that outsource jobs.
Martinez said La-Z-Boy would have gone out of business had it not closed plants in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Mississippi.
"I don't support outsourcing. I think it's a reality of today's commerce. It's a fact of life," Martinez said. "If the job can remain in America, I'm all for that. But if the job can't be competitive in America, then it's inevitable that it's going to go elsewhere."
Castor, a former state education commissioner, also noted that Martinez, who joined the company's board in March, exercised an option to buy 2,000 shares of company stock at a discounted rate after the layoffs were announced.
Mark Stegeman, a La-Z-Boy spokesman, said Chinese manufactures have the advantage of cheap labor without environmental and health care requirements. He said the company shed 6,500 jobs over the last four years while trying to compete, and said Castor's criticism of Martinez was unfair.
"We are not alone in this industry," Stegeman said.
The Castor campaign released a new radio ad that pressed home the outsourcing issue by quoting Martinez as saying it was "a fact of life."
"It's a horrible taking out of context," Martinez said.
Martinez, a Cuban-American, reached out to Florida's 650,000 Puerto Ricans as he began the day in Orlando, where they are concentrated.
"I understand the needs of Puerto Ricans, those on the island as well as those in the United States because," Martinez told about 20 Puerto Rican leaders. "Even though I wasn't born on the island, I was born just down the street. We share a common language, a common culture."
With little time left before the polls open Tuesday, the race has turned even nastier.
Castor, when asked if she was contributing to the race's negative tone, said, "Every day I turn on the TV, I see an outrageous ad attacking me that is not truthful, so this idea that suddenly I'm attacking him is ridiculous."
Martinez called Castor's recent tactics "a series of 11th-hour shrill attacks," although he said a discussion of trade issues was a legitimate topic.
Associated Press Writers Mike Branom in Orlando and Bill Kaczor in Pensacola contributed to this report.