Billed as a race that would test the popularity of U.S.-Cuba policy among Cuban-Americans, the contest between Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and challenger Raul Martinez instead has devolved into a slugfest featuring accusations of corruption and wrongdoing.
The question both candidates are asking voters in a blur of negative TV ads, harsh mailers and hurled insults is essentially: Who is dirtier?
The latest volleys: a Republican flier that accuses Democrat Martinez's adult children of cashing in on his considerable influence as longtime Hialeah mayor to secure jobs, and a Martinez campaign ad that accuses Diaz-Balart of accepting a ''suitcase'' of cash from a Puerto Rican politician "indicted in a scandal.''
''It's easily one of the nastiest races in the country,'' said David Wasserman, a political analyst tracking House contests for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
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Observers had predicted a bare-knuckles fight between the brash former mayor and the aggressive congressman, as well as a referendum of sorts on whether younger Cuban-American voters in Miami are more interested in domestic issues than Cuba.
To be sure, both candidates have aired positive spots touting their credentials, and have sparred over family visits and remittances to Cuba — Diaz-Balart wants to continue current limits, Martinez favors relaxing them.
But any chance that the race would stick to the issues evaporated with Diaz-Balart's first campaign ad, which opened with soaring rhetoric about the Republican incumbent before dissolving into an attack on Martinez, who was convicted on corruption charges stemming from his stint as mayor.
The conviction was reversed on appeal, and the prosecution dropped the case after two mistrials.
Diaz-Balart's campaign defends the ads as addressing a critical factor: integrity.
''You can say we started it, but everything we have said is true, we are not fabricating lies and putting them in our ads,'' said Carlos Curbelo, a spokesman for Diaz-Balart. "Integrity is a major issue in any campaign. Integrity is fundamental to public service.''
Said Diaz-Balart at the pair's most recent debate Thursday night: "I've never embarrassed our community with a corruption scandal, and I think that's a very important ingredient to keep in mind.''
By focusing almost entirely on his opponent's ''checkered history,'' as one debate moderator called it, Diaz-Balart is looking to undermine Martinez's case for his candidacy.
And Martinez has sought to turn the tables by asserting that Diaz-Balart, too, has baggage.
Martinez's ads play up $30,000 in fines that Diaz-Balart paid to the Federal Election Commission for campaign-finance violations.
And a new ad seeks to tie Diaz-Balart to a purported ''suitcase'' of campaign contributions.
It uses a media interview with an indicted Puerto Rican senator who said he traveled to Miami to deliver to the congressman an unspecified amount of money from a prominent Puerto Rican family.
The radio and TV interviewers, however, not the senator, were the ones who mentioned a suitcase and delivering $50,000.
Diaz-Balart has said he got two $200 campaign contributions from the family, both recorded in his 2006 campaign report.
''He now is running ads defaming me,'' Diaz-Balart thundered to reporters after the debate at Miami Dade College. "He's saying that I accepted a suitcase of money when he knows that allegation hasn't been made. That's intolerable. That's defamation.''
Martinez's campaign says it's Diaz-Balart who has stepped over the line with a mailer paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee. The mailer, a companion to a TV ad by the NRCC titled ''Wheel of Corruption,'' suggests that Martinez's son and daughter obtained jobs through his connections.
''I never thought they would stoop this low,'' said Jeff Garcia, a spokesman for Martinez. "This is out of bounds.''
''Families should be sacred,'' Martinez said at the debate. "We should be debating the issues.''
Diaz-Balart spokesman Curbelo said the campaign didn't know about the mailer; the NRCC is required by law to operate mostly independent of the campaign. And he said the campaign does not condone using family members as an issue.
At Miami Dade College, the candidates stuck to the issues for more than an hour, getting in subtle jabs.
But the cordiality didn't last as they engaged in a back and forth in which Martinez accused Diaz-Balart of using Spanish-language radio to deliver tirades against his opponents, and Diaz-Balart accused Martinez of having "hallucinations.''
''Wow,'' said debate moderator Lee Thomas, chairman of the school's social-sciences department.