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Federal housing secretary considers Senate campaign

U.S. housing Secretary Mel Martinez is considering stepping into the Republican race to succeed Bob Graham in the U.S. Senate.

Martinez, who was Orange County's elected chairman before President Bush tapped him for his Cabinet, is being pushed to run by Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, the Washington Post reported Tuesday.

"I'm thinking about running but not inclined," Martinez told the newspaper.

Martinez, who rose to prominence after moving from Cuba as a boy and being raised in foster homes, is a rising Republican star widely considered a contender for governor in 2006. But getting his name on the 2004 ballot could help President Bush's reelection by boosting turnout among Cuban-Americans and winning over Hispanic swing voters in Central Florida.

If he runs, Martinez would hurt the bids by two other Republicans, U.S. Rep. Mark Foley of West Palm Beach and former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum of Longwood.

Graham is expected to run for president, which would make the Democratic seat one of the ripest in the nation for Republicans to pick off. So far, though, no Republican statewide powerhouse has emerged.

"I have heard the White House is shopping for another candidate," said Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, a Foley supporter. "I think right now Mark is the person who has gathered the most money and the most support. I'd hate to have that rug pulled out from under him."

McCollum, who lost to Democrat Bill Nelson in the 2000 Senate race, met with Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday to discuss the race. McCollum said the president's brother assured him he would be neutral until after the Republican primary.

"I don't think Mel has any interest in running. I have no idea if Karl Rove or somebody wants him to run," said McCollum, noting that some key Martinez supporters are working on his campaign.

If Graham runs for president, Democrats expected to run for his seat include U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings of Miramar, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, and U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch of Fort Lauderdale. Deutsch, who already has about $2.5-million in a campaign account, recently rehired Robin Rorapaugh, a top campaign operative and his former chief of staff, for his congressional staff.

_ Times staff writers Bill Adair and Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.