What ought to be one of the best chances for the Republicans to pick up a seat in the U.S. Senate this fall could go up in smoke if the still smoldering embers of a GOP primary conflagration cannot be extinguished. Less than two weeks after former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez won the Republican U.S. Senate primary in Florida with 45%, his leading rival has yet to endorse him to succeed retiring Democrat Sen. Bob Graham. Smarting from what one key supporter called “mean-spirited, desperate and personal” attacks by the Martinez campaign, former Rep. Bill McCollum (who placed second in the primary with 31%) last week told reporters he would not back Martinez until he and Martinez could hold a private meeting. But after 10 days that meeting had not been scheduled. By contrast, Democrats have enthusiastically united behind former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Betty Castor, who swept to victory in the Democratic primary by a two-to-one margin. Partly because of McCollum’s poor showing as the Republican Senate nominee in 2000 (when Bush famously almost lost Florida), the White House and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) made little secret of its desire to have the Cuba-born Martinez share the 2004 ballot with the President. White House political director Karl Rove reportedly encouraged Martinez to run and Sen. George Allen (Va.), the NRSC chairman, broke his committee’s neutrality tradition by endorsing Martinez. Martinez flooded the airwaves with a TV spot showing Bush hailing Martinez with what appeared to be an endorsement (although the White House always publicly maintained it wasn’t taking sides in the contest). This prompted a flood of protest letters from McCollum backers to the White House, but Martinez kept running the commercial. McCollum’s overall record during 20 years in the U.S. House was fairly conservative (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 89%). But McCollum did support the type of stem cell research that kills human embryos, and in 1997 co-sponsored hate-crimes legislation that would have covered homosexuals. Pro-family groups, including Gary Bauer‘s Campaign for Working Families, the National Right to Life Committee, and the Traditional Values Coalition, weighed in for Martinez. McCollum backers charged that Martinez went overboard when he permitted such social conservatives as Bauer and Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition, in a much-publicized conference call with reporters, to accuse McCollum of having an “anti-family agenda.” In the call, Lafferty said McCollum “lied to me” by breaking a commitment to oppose the hate-crimes legislation he ended up co-sponsoring. (Martinez did not participate in the conference call.) “This kind of political hate speech can only hurt our party and doom us in November,” wrote former Sen. Connie Mack, McCollum’s campaign chairman, in a primary-eve letter to 15,000 party activists. Whether the attacks on McCollum were fair targets for criticism or not, the fact remains that Republicans are now going wounded into a November race they had been counting on as a likely win.