WASHINGTON—Republican Party chief Mel Martinez criticized GOP presidential contenders Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney on Friday, saying their opposition to the Senate immigration plan he and President Bush have championed is "wrong."
"I have to say, on this issue they are falling short," Martinez, the general chairman of the Republican National Committee, said on Bloomberg Television. "I think it's been too easy for too many people in the Senate and outside the Senate to simply criticize and find fault. No doubt that this is an imperfect product, but at the end of the day, what is your solution? What is your answer?
"The status quo is not good enough," the Florida senator said. "And so whether a presidential candidate or a senator, they need to take the step beyond criticizing and offer a solution."
The unusual criticism, coming hours after legislation that Martinez helped craft derailed on the Senate floor, underscores the fissure the issue has opened in the party as it tries to appeal to "border security first" advocates without alienating Hispanics.
Romney and Giuliani had criticized the proposal at the Republican presidential debate Tuesday night, with Giuliani calling it a "typical Washington mess."
A third candidate, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who worked with Martinez on similar legislation last year, defended the proposal at the debate. Martinez— who prefaced his remarks by noting that he was, as party chairman, impartial in the race— acknowledged that McCain's stance may have cost him points with voters. "But at the same time, I think he really has taken a very, very principled position," he said, "and I thought his defense of his position on this issue showed very well in the last debate."
Giuliani's camp declined to comment on Martinez's remarks, but pointed to earlier statements in which the former New York mayor said the bill needs to "guarantee a uniform, tamper-proof, biometric identification card, a single nationwide database of foreigners in our country and full implementation of a biometric check-in, check-out system."
Romney's camp said the former Massachusetts governor opposed the Senate plan because of the "indefinite nature" of visas that would be available to illegal immigrants. It said Romney would insist on an employment verification system with tamper-proof cards.
President Bush selected Martinez as party leader weeks after the November election, in which Hispanic voters were decidedly less enthusiastic about the GOP. Martinez said he's worried that the immigration debate will further hurt the party with the largest growing bloc of voters.
"I worry about that a lot," Martinez said. "I think we paid a political price in the last election cycle. If we get the same type of Hispanic support in the next election cycle that we did in the last, there is no way we could elect a Republican president."
But Martinez suggested there was plenty of blame to go around for the collapse of the deal.
"At the end of the day, if the issue fails, it will not just be because of Republicans, because a lot of Democrats took their shot at this issue during the past week's debate as well," he said, laughing. "It's a bipartisan failure."