WASHINGTON—Florida Sen. Mel Martinez on Friday took the helm of a national Republican Party splintered over illegal immigration, vowing to reach out to black, Hispanic and "all communities that may have never believed that Republican ideals spoke to them."
President Bush's selection of Martinez sparked a backlash from border-state Republicans and other conservatives who oppose the Cuba-born Martinez's embrace of proposed immigration revisions that they consider "amnesty."
But a charm offensive by Martinez, aided by a White House meeting with Bush for some delegates and what some charged was pressure to accept Martinez, dissolved the protest into a few lonely voices in a cavernous ballroom at the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee.
Still, the rift illustrates a division in the party over the as-yet-unsettled immigration issue and represents just one fissure Martinez faces as he tries to raise money and create a message for a party that lost both chambers of Congress in November. Martinez said he expected that message to include "big ideas" and more outreach to independents.
"To be the party of the future means that we also have to be a party that opens the door wide open so that all Americans feel welcome," he said in a speech that had the crowd hushed as he recounted his voyage as a 15-year-old from Fidel Castro's Cuba to the United States, sent by his parents, who feared Castro's oppression. "There are too many Americans who do not understand that the principles of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan speak to their hopes, their dreams and their aspirations. I will take the message of our party to all Americans."
Martinez's selection reflects the party's intent to boost its appeal among Hispanic Americans, the fastest-growing electorate in the United States. Bush attracted record number of Hispanics in 2004 but they returned to the Democrats in 2006.
Democrats said they were skeptical that Martinez could bridge the gap in his party.
"The underlying problem remains that part of the Republican base is xenophobic," said Joe Garcia, the director of the New Democrat Network's Hispanic Strategy Center. "It has become very difficult for the president to reconcile his vision for an American future with a significant portion of his party."
Speakers who introduced Martinez took pains to underscore what they called his bedrock Republican principles.
Martinez, noted Sharon Day, a Republican activist from Florida, has a 100 percent anti-abortion, anti-tax voting record.
"Mel is not a halfhearted Republican; Mel is not a wishy-washy Republican," she said.
Rep. Luis Fortuno, who represents Puerto Rico in Congress, suggested that Martinez can reach out to communities where Republicans haven't gone before.
"That should not scare anyone here," Fortuno said. "Perhaps it should scare the other party."
Martinez will serve as honorary party chair; day-to-day details of running the Republican National Committee will be left to Mike Duncan, a longtime committee operative.
In an interview earlier this week with Florida reporters, Martinez said he'd told Bush that his primary role was as a U.S. senator.
"I made it very clear to him that I needed to be—and intended to be—a full-time senator for the state of Florida," Martinez said, adding that "I will not be going to every Lincoln Day dinner around the country. . . . I'm still going to coach basketball on the weekend."
At a news conference after his election, Martinez illustrated his appeal with little effort: switching into Spanish to answer several "preguntas."
He noted in his remarks that as a Cuban, "it was easy for me to understand that the Republican Party—the party of Ronald Reagan—was a party for us."
"I want to make sure that we take that message to the broader Hispanic community, to the African-American community and to all communities that may never have believed that Republican ideals spoke to them," he said.
In a statement, Bush said he expected the new team to "encourage more Americans to join our party.
"Sen. Martinez will help our party effectively communicate the Republican message of hope and opportunity for all Americans."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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