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Claude Kirk to challenge Gov. Martinez

Claude Kirk, who in the 1960s became Florida's first Republican governor in nearly 100 years, apparently plans to challenge the only other Republican to hold the job in this century. Kirk is expected to announce at a news conference today that he will run against Gov. Bob Martinez in the Republican primary. He will be accompanied by Tommy Thomas, the former state party chairman who has worked for months to recruit Republicans to run against the governor.

"He's a better alternative than Martinez," Thomas said of Kirk. "We're in agreement on one thing. Martinez can't win."

To run against Martinez in the primary, Kirk will have to change his party affiliation. Although he was a Republican when he was governor, he has been a Democrat in recent years.

Thomas said Kirk, who was en route to the state capital Thursday night, will make the switch today. "He'll be a born-again Republican," Thomas quipped.

Considered an eccentric character, Kirk has had a colorful political career. After being elected in 1966, he arrived at his inaugural ball with a mystery woman he referred to as "Madame X." He later established a secret slush fund in the governor's office to pay for non-governmental expenses.

When Democrats began ripping into Martinez's performance, they distributed bumper stickers that said: "At least Kirk was funny."

After leaving office, Kirk ran unsuccessful campaigns for governor in 1978 and for the U.S. Senate in 1988 as a Democrat. Now 64, he lives in Palm Beach and manages investments.

Thomas said Kirk called him this week and told him he wanted to run against Martinez. They met Wednesday in Tallahassee to discuss the race.

Kirk is not the first politician who has been encouraged by Thomas to run against Martinez. Thomas first supported the candidacy of Marlene Woodson-Howard, an obscure state senator from Bradenton who is campaigning. Then he urged Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez to run, but Suarez decided against it this week.

Martinez's campaign manager, J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, said he is unconcerned about Kirk's interest in the race and Thomas' efforts to line up Martinez opponents.

"I guess Tommy is going to spend the last bit of credibility he's got," Stipanovich said. "I don't believe we're going to do a single thing different."

Meanwhile, Gainesville real estate broker and auctioneer Ben Campen said Thursday he would probably enter the Republican field sometime next week.

Campen, 43, planned to tell the Alachua County Republican Executive Committee of his plans Thursday night.

Three Republicans are already in the primary field _ Martinez, Woodson-Howard and Fort Lauderdale resident Anthony Martin.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.

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