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Congresswoman endorses Martinez for U.S. Senate

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen endorsed Mel Martinez for U.S. Senate on Wednesday, calling the former Housing and Urban Development secretary the Republican who could best attract independent-minded voters.

"We want somebody who will help the president and yet can reach out to Democrats and independents, and Mel has that electability," Ros-Lehtinen, a prominent Cuban-American lawmaker from Miami, said in an interview. "He's got the oomph, the energy, the enthusiasm."

Martinez, also a Cuban-American, resigned from President Bush's Cabinet last month to enter the crowded GOP primary for the seat of retiring Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Graham. The former Orange County chairman was encouraged by the White House.

Several Cuban-American lawmakers have already backed other Republican candidates in the race.

Former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum has been endorsed by two Miami area congressmen, U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and his younger brother, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. Supporters of House Speaker Johnnie Byrd of Plant City include state Reps. Gaston Cantens and Marco Rubio of the Miami area. And state Sen. Dan Webster of Winter Garden has the endorsements of all three Cuban-American senators from the Miami area, Republicans Alex Diaz de la Portilla, Rudy Garcia and J. Alex Villalobos.

The Republican field also includes Miami lawyer Larry Klayman and former New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith of Sarasota.

_ Staff, wire reports