Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards could have an unlikely shield against attacks as he seeks the White House: former housing secretary and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mel Martinez.
In a potentially awkward case of mixed messages, national Republican leaders are criticizing the North Carolina senator as a trial lawyer even as they have been promoting former trial lawyer Martinez's Senate candidacy in Florida.
Campaigning Wednesday in South Carolina, Edwards acknowledged the irony of Republican leaders' embracing one former trial lawyer in Florida while attacking another.
"It seems a little odd," he said with a smile.
"He seems like a good man from what little I know about him," Edwards said of Martinez, "but I disagree with his politics."
Edwards, who made millions suing insurance companies, doctors and corporations, is an underdog in the race for the Democratic nomination. But if he gains momentum, some Republicans see the prospect of a sticky debate in Florida, where Martinez is widely seen as the White House's preferred nominee to succeed retiring Sen. Bob Graham.
"If Edwards continues to move forward either with the presidential nomination or as a vice presidential candidate, you're going to see the rhetoric about trial lawyers get ratcheted up," said Rick Wilson, a Republican campaign consultant. "Mel could catch some radiation from that."
Trial lawyers are a favorite target of Republican leaders, and the most common GOP criticism of Edwards is his former profession.
President Bush on Monday went to Arkansas to repeat his call for clamping down on medical malpractice litigation, saying "junk lawsuits are threatening medicine across the country."
Martinez, a former head of the Florida Academy of Trial Lawyers, dismissed any comparison between him and Edwards.
"That will be an issue for John Edwards to deal with," he said Wednesday of Republicans bashing personal-injury lawyers. "I'll be out there doing my thing. I plan to be out there campaigning with the president when I'm the nominee."
Martinez sued insurance companies and handled one or two medical malpractice cases, he said, but stressed that his trial lawyer experience is only one aspect of his background. He was also in President Bush's Cabinet overseeing federal housing programs, was the top elected official in Orange County and was a bank board member.
Though in the late 1980s he contributed $20,000 toward fighting an effort in Florida to restrict lawsuits, Martinez said he has supported recent attempts to improve the medical malpractice system and can bring a knowledgeable perspective to the debate.
But his former career already has become an issue for some of Martinez's Republican primary opponents, who include former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum of Longwood, House Speaker Johnnie Byrd of Plant City, state Sen. Dan Webster of Winter Garden, former New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith of Sarasota and Miami lawyer and conservative activist Larry Klayman.
McCollum has attacked Martinez's trial lawyer background, and at a candidates forum Tuesday in Tallahassee he extended his criticism to Edwards.
"The people of Florida know that overzealous trial lawyers are largely responsible for many doctors retiring from practice, being forced to leave our state, or go without insurance," he said, as Martinez sat nearby. "With all due respect to Sen. Edwards, he'd be hard-pressed in my judgment to find votes in this state."
Edwards touts his experience as a trial lawyer as proof of his passion for fighting on behalf of regular Americans against teams of insurance company lawyers.
"I beat 'em, and I beat 'em again, and I beat 'em again. I'm proud of those fights," he said again Wednesday in South Carolina, drawing applause.
_ Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or adamsptimes.com.