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.''
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
A 57-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native, Bernard E. Klein is a political newcomer and a businessman who hopes to appeal to political moderates dissatisfied with the Democratic Party. But he has no significant political network or substantial financial resources for a viable statewide campaign.
''If I'm going to win, I have to appeal to independents and I'm going to try to redefine the Democratic Party as pro-business, pro-worker and pro-jobs,'' he said, adding that he will oppose any issue that raises taxes. He wants to lower the corporate income tax rate to encourage more business development, and he recommends a radical reduction in spending on Medicaid and Medicare, but he has failed to explain how those programs should be revamped or replaced.
Klein, who lives in Plantation and has a Hollywood business address, is seen as a spoiler who might attempt to siphon votes from Peter Deutsch -- the only other candidate from Broward County. He insists that he wasn't covertly recruited and has joined the race only because of his concerns about key issues, though he unhesitatingly blasts Deutsch as ''out of touch'' with many Floridians and too focused on getting votes from Florida seniors.
''It's totally and solely about the issues, and making our country better,'' Klein said of his candidacy. ''I decided to run because I thought our approach to terrorism was wrong, and there's fiscal irresponsibility. I'm concerned about predatory lending practices and the concerns of people in business.''
The candidate, however, has not explained his views on many key issues and admits to being uninformed on certain federal issues, such as the multibillion-dollar Everglades restoration project.
Klein, who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has a controlling interest in a business, Sonar Radio Corp., which his now-deceased father helped develop. It was a small electronic equipment manufacturer, but Klein says it mainly is producing income from property leases. A golf aficionado, Klein also has an interest in a new company that will manufacture golf clubs and other equipment.
A son of Cuban refugees and the twice-elected head of the state's most populous county, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas casts himself as the ''most electable'' Democrat in the U.S. Senate race.
Penelas, 42, says he can help Democrats including presumptive presidential nominee John Kerry reach out to increasingly critical Hispanic voters.
He has never run statewide, but Penelas raised his profile two years ago by his push for a constitutional amendment to set up a pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds.
His strategy rests on his moderate record, photogenic good looks, and record of winning Republican Cuban-American voters in nonpartisan Miami-Dade County elections. He also offers a choice for Central Florida's predominantly Puerto Rican electorate, positioning himself as an alternative to potential GOP nominee Mel Martinez.
''The big advantage I have is electability,'' Penelas says. ''I can compete in every neighborhood.'' The gamble, however, is that he is little known outside of Miami, and this race will require him to campaign heavily across the state.
His father was a businessman in Cuba who gained asylum in the United States. His mother, a teacher in Cuba, worked in the United States as a hotel maid and seamstress.
After attending Dade County public schools and graduating from the University of Miami's law school in 1985, Penelas went to work for a private law firm. But political office has been his forte. He served on the Hialeah City Council and then the Miami-Dade County Commission. As mayor, he has pushed with varying success initiatives dealing with crime, transportation and government ethics reform. ''I've always challenged the old guard, and done the things that need to get done,'' he says.
His tenure as mayor has included controversies, such as his having told then-Attorney General Janet Reno during the Elián González controversy that the Clinton administration would be responsible for any bloodshed caused by their decisions.
He also has been accused of not aggressively working to help Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000. More recently, he's lost support of many labor groups statewide -- he says unfairly -- over police treatment of union members at an international trade summit in Miami last year.Copyright © 2015, CT Now