U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez's announcement Tuesday that he will not run for reelection set off a political free-for-all throughout Florida, as a slew of would-be successors began jockeying for position in the state's marquee race in 2010.
Martinez's retirement will force the Republican Party, already weakened by recent election defeats, to defend another seat in Congress and to court the Hispanic community without one of its most prominent voices. Martinez arrived in the United States at age 15, wielding a suitcase and not a word of English. In 2004 he rose to become the first Cuban-born U.S. senator.
His slumping poll numbers and lackluster reelection fundraising have fueled speculation for months that he would not seek another term. But Martinez, a reluctant Washington insider recruited by President George W. Bush, insisted that he wasn't deterred by the prospect of a tough race. He added that he announced his retirement early to give potential candidates enough time to build campaigns.
"The inescapable truth, for me, is that the call to public service is strong, but the call to home, family and lifelong friends is even stronger," the 62-year-old Martinez said at a news conference in Orlando, which he called "my only true home since I left Cuba."
The absence of an heir apparent creates the prospect of a costly partisan brawl. A spokeswoman for former Gov. Jeb Bush said he had not seriously considered a Senate campaign, but hours later a close ally said Bush was thinking about the race. His entry would immediately clear the Republican field.
Gov. Charlie Crist is unlikely to give up his perch for the back of a Senate controlled by the Democratic Party. Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum said Tuesday that he is considering the job, but he has lost two previous bids for the Senate.
That leaves a number of younger and lesser-known Republicans in the mix, including House Speaker Marco Rubio, U.S. Reps. Connie Mack and Adam Putnam and Senate President Jeff Atwater.
"This is a wide-open seat on both sides of the equation," said Al Cardenas, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. "I think it behooves the party leadership to try to narrow this race down."
On the Democratic side, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink is considered the most formidable candidate. She had been expected to rule out a Senate bid, but Martinez's decision appears to have moved her to reconsider.
U.S. Reps. Allen Boyd, Ron Klein and Kendrick Meek, and state Sen. Dan Gelber are among the likely candidates if Sink stays in Tallahassee.
NOW A 'BATLEGROUND'
"Martinez's announcement ensures that Florida will be a central battleground in the 2010 election," said a statement from Karen Thurman, chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party.
Martinez, a lawyer, was elected mayor of Orange County in 1998. President Bush tapped him to serve as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2001 and urged him to run for the Senate in 2004. Martinez answered the call, and did so again when Bush asked him to be chairman of the Republican National Committee in November 2006, when the GOP lost control of Congress amid declining Hispanic support.
But he stepped down from the political post less than a year later, battered by the fierce fight in Congress over immigration reform and weary of juggling his responsibilities to his party and constituents.
AFTER THE SENATE
In contrast to the rigors of a statewide campaign that could cost more than $20 million, Martinez can look forward to parlaying his extensive network of contacts into a successful legal or consulting practice. He and his wife, Kitty, have three children and two grandchildren.
Martinez's retirement means Republicans will have to defend at least two open Senate seats in 2010. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas is expected to run for governor, exacerbating anxiety in the Republican Party over losing seats in Congress to Democrats and the White House to Barack Obama.
Martinez's departure will also mean the loss of one of the strongest proponents of the trade embargo with Cuba and other sanctions aimed at squeezing the communist regime. Obama favors allowing Cuban-Americans to freely travel and send money to the island.
"He's been one of our shining lights, a good example of a Cuban-American success story," said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami. "They don't get much bigger than Mel Martinez."
(Miami Herald staff writers Adam Beasley, Mary Ellen Klas and Hannah Sampson contributed to this article.)