Miami-area congressional races getting ugly as vote nears

With little more than a month to go before their first serious reelection challenge goes to voters, U.S. Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart have launched TV ads that accuse one Democratic challenger of corruption and the other of backing an $88 million utility-rate hike.

Democrats Raul Martinez and Joe Garcia have fired back — lambasting the brothers as out-of-touch politicians who cater to entrenched special interests, ignoring the needs of middle-class homeowners.

Observers expect the barrage of attacks -- which often twist the facts -- to escalate in the final weeks of the campaign as both parties keep a close eye on some of the nation's most competitive House races.

For Democrats, victory could lead to lasting inroads into districts long considered reliably Republican. The GOP is determined to hold the seats in an effort to maintain a strong minority in the House, where Democrats hold an edge, 235-199.

''This one will take the cake,'' said David Wasserman, who tracks House races for the nonpartisan Cook Report and has predicted that the Lincoln DiazBalart/Martinez matchup will be "one of the ugliest races in the country.''

''I think that may be an understatement,'' Wasserman said. "We will see a race that will operate in almost a different universe from what we see in most other races.''

Some of that was evident this week when Lincoln Diaz-Balart aired a spot alleging that Martinez used his office ''to become a millionaire'' and that he was ''featured'' in Cocaine Cowboys, a documentary about drug trafficking in Miami.

Martinez's campaign called it a ''sleazy'' ad that included ''baldface lies'' about Martinez's record. Martinez isn't mentioned by name in the documentary.

''Lincoln is the one who is making this an ugly campaign,'' said Martinez spokesman Aaron Blye. "We've accepted every debate and want to talk issues and Lincoln's record, but they refuse to debate and talk about the issues.''

Diaz-Balart's campaign manager, Ana Carbonell, defended the ad, saying it "contrasts two very different individuals. Lincoln's philosophy of public service has been to serve and Raul Martinez has used public service for his own financial gain.''

The battle comes as Democrats believe they have their best shot yet to unseat the Republicans, who have faced only minimal threats in the past. Democrats have outpaced Republicans in voter registration and both Martinez and Garcia have outraised their rivals.

The prospect of Democratic wins also has sparked the interest of outside political groups known as 527s that have run ads against the incumbents.

Some political observers suggest the races will be viewed as a referendum on U.S.-Cuba policy because of the brothers' support for hard-line sanctions. The 527s include One South Florida, funded largely by Carlos Saladrigas, the chairman of the Cuba Study Group, a moderate exile organization and Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation.

Both have been at odds with the Diaz-Balarts over Cuba policy and, like Martinez and Garcia, favor easing the 2004 Cuba travel restrictions.

One South Florida group has run ads accusing the brothers of being ''out of touch'' and charges that "instead of bringing badly needed funding and economic development programs to our region, they obsess on restricting the right of Cuban Americans to visit and send money to their relatives on the island.''

Another Democratic-leaning 527, the Patriot Majority, has run TV ads and mailers attacking Lincoln Diaz-Balart's voting record.

Still to be resolved is whether voters will see any of the fireworks in person. The campaigns have sparred over debates, with Democrats charging that the incumbents are ducking them.

Garcia and Mario Diaz-Balart have agreed to an Oct. 10 debate on WFOR-CBS 4, but Martinez and Lincoln Diaz-Balart have yet to reach an agreement. Last week, Lincoln Diaz-Balart said he had agreed to a WFOR-CBS 4 debate, but Martinez said no such debate existed. Martinez said he has agreed to at least seven other televised debates but Diaz-Balart has not.

The two races have overshadowed a challenge to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen by Annette Taddeo, who has put $350,000 of her own money into the race and also has national party backing. Taddeo launched her first ad this week and has called on Ros-Lehtinen to debate.

The Republican's response: "I am working on issues of importance to our community, and during the next few weeks I have many activities in Miami and Washington. Thus, we will consider this request at another time.''

Taddeo's ad, notably, doesn't mention Ros-Lehtinen.

Republicans lost two seats in Florida in 2006, and Democrats are targeting at least five this year, reserving $3.9 million in airtime across the state.

Republicans have reserved nearly $2 million in Miami airtime for the Diaz-Balarts, and Rep. Tom Cole, the Oklahoma Republican in charge of defending House seats, said he's confident the party will hold the Miami districts.

Ros-Lehtinen, he suggested, isn't ''in any trouble at all.'' But he acknowledged the Diaz-Balarts have a fight on their hands.

''We recognize it's competitive, but more importantly, they recognize it's competitive,'' Cole said. "At the end of the day, we'll actually win more comfortably than most of the prognosticators predict.''

First, though, viewers will have to slog through the ads.

Lincoln Diaz-Balart's latest opens with a mug shot of Martinez, who was convicted in the 1990s on racketeering and extortion charges.

Martinez's campaign points out it doesn't mention the convictions were reversed on appeal. The ad also accuses Martinez of using public coffers to become a millionaire. That refers, in part, to $1.2 million the Hialeah City Council voted to give Martinez for back pay and legal fees for the period he was suspended from office while fighting the corruption charges. Included in the payout was his city pension, which financial-disclosure forms show netted him between $100,000 and $1 million last year.

The volleys have been flying for weeks, ratcheting up as the Nov. 4 election nears. In the marquee race, Diaz-Balart opened his campaign with an ad that attacked Martinez for a history of "insults and vulgarities.''

Martinez came back, accusing Diaz-Balart of taking money from ''Big Oil'' and ''breaking the law'' -- referring to his brush with the Federal Election Commission which fined his campaign $30,000 for violations that included accepting excessive and corporate contributions.

In Garcia's case, Mario Diaz-Balart's ad accuses the former Public Service Commission chairman of supporting a rate hike and cozying up to energy giant Enron for a job with the Bush administration. Garcia has denied both charges, and news reports about the rate increase suggest he wasn't a member of the panel that voted for it.

Garcia is running an ad that accuses Diaz-Balart of taking money from oil companies and voting to give himself pay raises -- which are automatically awarded unless Congress votes to block them.