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National GOP star Sen. Martinez shines less bright in Florida

Sen. Mel Martinez addresses the Republican National Convention on Thursday night. He’s up for re-election in Florida in 2010.

Associated Press

Sen. Mel Martinez addresses the Republican National Convention on Thursday night. He’s up for re-election in Florida in 2010.

ST. PAUL — Mel Martinez leads a double life.

On the national stage, he's a beloved front-man for the GOP, the party's most prominent Hispanic leader and the man President Bush tapped to lead the Republican National Committee after the disastrous 2006 elections. He was the only Floridian who addressed the party's convention, delivering a prime-time speech Thursday arguing that Sen. John McCain is the best candidate to protect America.

Back home in Florida, though, the state's junior senator has a giant target on his back. Florida Democrats are lining up to run against him in 2010. Many Republicans complain he spends too little time courting local Republicans.

"I think he can change minds, but he has to get out and visit more," said Pasco GOP chairman Bill Bunting.

Hillsborough state committee member Carol Carter said she skipped Martinez's reception in St. Paul on Wednesday because Martinez spends so little time in the Tampa Bay area: "If he can't find me, I can't find him."

A June Quinnipiac University poll found only 40 percent of Florida voters approved of Martinez's performance, compared with 51 percent for Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and 61 percent for Gov. Charlie Crist.

"Obviously a race in Florida is always tight. I'm under no illusions it's not going to be tight, but we'll deal with that after this election cycle,'' said Martinez, 61, stressing that he's focused on helping McCain and other Republicans win in November.

In his five-minute speech Thursday, he hit Obama for being inexperienced and declared, "This is not the time for on-the-job training."

"John is a leader committed to peace, because he knows — first-hand — the pain and horror of war," Martinez said.

After a nasty primary against Bill McCollum, Martinez barely beat Democrat Betty Castor in 2004 to become the first Cuban-American in the Senate. It has not been easy. He infuriated moderates and liberals by pushing Congress to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case, and infuriated Republicans by pushing an immigration bill giving illegal immigrants a path to legal status.

It's a long way until 2010, of course, and the anti-Republican climate may well be over by then. But many insiders question whether he will even seek another term. State House Speaker Marco Rubio, U.S. Reps. Connie Mack of Fort Myers, Adam Putnam of Polk County and Jeff Miller of the Panhandle, and even Gov. Charlie Crist are often mentioned as potential Republican candidates if he retires.

Martinez said speculation is off-base and he intends to run: "There's no question in my mind."

Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate campaigns for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report and sees Martinez as vulnerable, said the job as RNC chairman kept Martinez out of Florida at a time when he should have been solidifying his support.

He has just $1.2-million in his campaign fund now, hardly enough to scare off challengers.

Martinez, however, said his role as party chairman will only help him raise money for the next election. "It has opened up the whole nation to me," he said.

National GOP star Sen. Martinez shines less bright in Florida 09/04/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 10, 2008 9:13am]
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