Former Gov. Jeb Bush's decision to take a pass on Florida's up-for-grabs U.S. Senate seat in 2010 has set the stage for fiercely competitive primaries in both parties and raised Democrats' hopes that in two years they'll grab another seat held by Republicans.
''Florida is now firmly in play, which, in all honesty, it would not have been with Jeb Bush,'' said Democratic consultant Jeff Garcia, who helped run nominee Betty Castor's unsuccessful campaign against Martinez in 2004. "It goes from being a foregone conclusion to a wide-open race.''
Since Mel Martinez announced five weeks ago that he would step down in 2010, the possibility that Bush would run had stopped possible contenders in their tracks. Within minutes of Bush's e-mailed announcement, potential Republican and Democratic candidates were dialing donors.
Potential Republican candidates include Attorney General Bill McCollum, former House Speaker Marco Rubio, former House Speaker Allan Bense and U.S. Rep. Connie Mack. McCollum is the only one on the Republican short list who has run statewide.
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Another statewide officeholder, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, is considered the most formidable Democrat. Other possible contenders are state Sen. Dan Gelber and U.S. Reps. Kendrick Meek, Ron Klein and Allen Boyd.
The reaction to Bush's announcement came swiftly, rousing Democrats enthralled by an open Senate seat and deflating Republicans already laid low by losing the White House and backsliding in Congress.
''There's no hiding the disappointment for Republicans statewide and a lot of Republicans nationally,'' said Cory Tilley, a Republican consultant who worked for the former governor in Tallahassee. "It created a really big buzz after Republicans had been beaten pretty soundly. . . . Now the door has been cracked open for the Democrats.''
Martinez has said he will serve the rest of his term, but rumors persist that he may resign before 2010, allowing Republican Gov. Charlie Crist to appoint a successor who would have a leg up in the election.
''Jeb would have been a great candidate and senator,'' Martinez said in a statement.
"The good news is that Republicans still hold the advantage with a deep field of potential candidates.''
But a crowded field can bruise the eventual nominee and drain the fundraising pool before the general election.
''Jeb Bush not running is the best news a Democrat in Florida could hear,'' said Democratic fundraiser Kirk Wagar. "Every other Republican is starting from scratch.''
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