TALLAHASSEE — The search for a successor to U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez quickly centered Friday on Jim Smith, a wealthy Tallahassee lawyer-lobbyist who served as a Democratic attorney general and Republican secretary of state in Florida.
Smith, vacationing in Colorado, said he would love to go to Washington, even as a caretaker. "I'd go tomorrow," he said.
Martinez ended a brief but stormy career in national politics Friday by announcing he will step down as soon as Gov. Charlie Crist chooses a replacement.
Crist, the front-runner in the 2010 election for Martinez's seat, said he would not appoint himself senator under any circumstances.
"I will not appoint myself, and I have gotten a lot of recommendations about very qualified people," Crist said in Tampa. "No decision's been made. There is not a short list. There is not a long list."
Smith, 69, was a Democratic candidate for governor in 1986, but the experience was so difficult that he became a Republican. He's a shareholder in Smith & Ballard, one of the most lucrative lobbying firms in the state, where his partner and son-in-law, Brian Ballard, is a close adviser and leading fundraiser for Crist.
The firm's lengthy list of big business clients includes hospitals, utilities, insurers, nursing homes and sugar growers.
Former state House Speaker John Thrasher, a Republican insider, predicted Crist would appoint Smith.
The biggest name that did not emerge as a possible replacement was former Gov. Jeb Bush, who would give the Republican Party the strong voice it lacks in challenging President Barack Obama's policies.
Names that did surface:
• Former Gov. Bob Martinez, a lobbyist in Tampa, said he was surprised to hear his name circulating among political figures. "I've had no contact with anyone about this at all," said Martinez, who lost a re-election bid in 1990.
• Former U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale, whose 26-year career in Congress ended with a loss to Democrat Ron Klein in 2006, said he was interested but had not been approached. Shaw's last chief of staff in Congress, Eric Eikenberg, is Crist's chief of staff.
• Daniel Webster of Winter Garden, a conservative icon and the first Republican speaker of the Florida House since Reconstruction, also expressed interest but had not been contacted.
Webster, who briefly ran in 2004 for the seat Martinez is vacating, said Crist is all but guaranteed to be the next U.S. senator, so he may as well get in office early to accrue seniority in the tradition-bound upper chamber of Congress.
"Everything in the U.S. Senate is based on seniority. This could be huge for Florida with Charlie Crist already being there," Webster said. "I think Mel would agree with me, but the governor probably won't appoint himself for appearance sake."
Former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack confirmed that when Martinez's plans to leave became clear, he rejected Crist's recent request that he fill out the remainder of Martinez's term. "It certainly has been more than a few days (ago)," Mack said.
Crist said July 28 that he expected Martinez to stay in the Senate and that talk of Mack or Smith as a replacement would be "putting the cart before the horse."
Crist's Republican primary challenger, former House Speaker Marco Rubio, urged the governor to take "great care" in the pick.
"The last thing Florida needs is a U.S. senator that will stand with President Obama instead of challenging the wrong direction he is leading our country and offering constructive conservative solutions moving forward," Rubio said, an oblique knock on Crist's support of the federal stimulus.
The sentiment underscores the challenges facing Crist. He must choose someone who does not offend the base of the Republican Party, which already has a mixed relationship with the governor.
Crist may also feel pressure to choose someone with working knowledge of Washington, given the short tenure of the position.
"Charlie's going to look for someone who's totally nonthreatening, both a supporter and a friend, who won't embarrass him," said Republican consultant Rick Wilson of Tallahassee.
"He's got to pick someone who is an elder statesman, who will be good for Florida and doesn't have a lot of further political ambition."
Crist pledged to "undertake a very thorough, comprehensive, thoughtful process."
Smith, a Jacksonville native, is chairman of the Florida State University board of trustees. As attorney general, he was a strong proponent of the death penalty; as a defeated candidate for governor in 1986, he refused to endorse Democratic nominee Steve Pajcic, an act that led Smith to refer to himself as "a horse's ass."
He campaigned for Bob Martinez, switched parties and became Martinez's chief of staff.
Smith has been a long-standing proponent of reforming Florida's tax base, and as a Republican candidate for governor in 1994, he favored abortion rights, a reverse of his previous stand. He was trounced in the primary by Jeb Bush, who narrowly lost the election to Democrat Lawton Chiles.
Later that year, Republicans made Smith a last-minute candidate for agriculture commissioner, a move that backfired when Smith lost to Democrat Bob Crawford.
Times staff writers Alex Leary and Adam C. Smith and Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.