Betty Castor

A 63-year-old two-term former state education commissioner from Tampa, Betty Castor is the only Democrat in the race who has run for statewide office before. But it's been 14 years since her last campaign and she's never held a federal post.

Her strategy is to win big in Central Florida and the Panhandle while competing for a slice of South Florida votes against a trio of opponents based there. Her advantage now is an early lead and backing from EMILY's list, which works to elect women who favor abortion rights.

Born Elizabeth Bowe, she grew up in a small New Jersey town and had a lifelong interest in a career in education. She taught in Uganda two years, and once led a group of women to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro - Africa's highest peak.

She married a judge; got a master's degree at the University of Miami; had three children, and taught grade school in Dade County during the early days of school integrationIn 1972, she became the first woman elected to the Hillsborough County Commission.

Divorced in 1979, Castor a decade later married Sam Bell, the former Florida House speaker whom she got to know after being elected to the Florida Senate, where she served in the mid-1980s. She became the first woman education commissioner in Florida.

She left to be president of the University of South Florida, overcoming naysayers who grumbled that she didn't have a doctorate.

At USF, her tenure was overshadowed by the case of Sami Al-Arian, the former professor accused of operating a support cell for Palestinian terrorists. She left the matter up to law enforcement. ``It was a difficult episode,'' Castor recalls. ``But I think we dealt with it as best we could with what we knew at the time.''

On the campaign trail, Castor speaks broadly about improving schools, expanding access to health care, national security and working to create higher-paying jobs. She ignores critics who attack her lack of federal experience. She reminds them of her climb up Mount Kilimanjaro, saying that ``when you just set a goal, and you work together, you can overcome differences and almost any obstacle, and succeed.''

Peter Deutsch

A 47-year-old Yale-educated lawyer from Fort Lauderdale, Peter Deutsch has served a dozen years in Congress and amassed the largest campaign war chest in the race. He's an aggressive campaigner and a well-known political figure in Broward County -- the Democrats' strongest region. But he has a mostly liberal voting record that could hurt in conservative areas, and a combative style.

''I'm not going to win the Mr. Congeniality award, but that's not why people elected me,'' Deutsch says. ''I just want people to know that I am going to fight for them.'' Deutsch grew up in the Bronx, N.Y., where his father, son of a poor family of immigrants from Belarus, ran a construction business.

After graduating from Yale, Deutsch moved to Florida and was elected five months later to the Florida House of Representatives in 1982 at the age of 25.

His interest in public office grew out of his experience in his third year of law school helping defend impoverished Floridians evicted from nursing homes after their eligibility for Medicaid ran out. The first bill he passed in the Legislature banned nursing home evictions.

He went to Congress in 1992, and now represents a district that stretches from Miami Beach to the Everglades in west Broward and includes many retirement condominiums, liberal and Jewish bastions and a growing number of Hispanic voters.

Deutsch, his wife, Lori, and their two children follow the principles of Orthodox Judaism. He casts himself as a ''New Democrat,'' in the mold of Bill Clinton, telling audiences that he votes for a balanced budget, line-item veto and welfare reform. He has strong ratings from the Sierra Club and abortion rights groups, supports a universal health care system, opposes school vouchers, supports gay rights and gun control.

His strategy for winning relies on his assumption that 40 percent of the voters in the Democratic primary live within an hour of his home in Hollywood. He bristles at charges that he's been on the attack against Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, a rival for South Florida-based votes in the primary.

''I don't think I'm a typical politician,'' Deutsch says. ''If someone asks me a question, I'll be honest and direct.''

Bernard E. Klein