DENVER — U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart flew into enemy territory Monday, tapped as a star of a Republican rapid-response team that is aggressively looking to put its spin on the Democratic convention.
From a sleek, high-tech war room set up in a brick bunker about a mile from where Democrats are converging this week, Diaz-Balart zapped Barack Obama and praised John McCain— in English and Spanish — on radio, television and in print.
"Obama makes great speeches but he's not ready to be president,'' Diaz-Balart told a Fort Myers television station, via satellite. Earlier, he told CNN Espaúol in an interview to be nationally broadcast that McCain is "genuinamente independiente,'' but above all, "un patriota americano.''
But even as Diaz-Balart was reaping high-profile publicity and serving as a top surrogate for McCain, the Miami Republican's Democratic challenger was nipping at his heels from the Denver hotel where Florida's Democrats are camped out.
In his own ad hoc interviews in the hotel lobby, Raul Martinez reiterated a challenge to debate Diaz-Balart in Denver, before cameras.
"He won't do it at home,'' Martinez said. "So let's go here. We're both here.''
Democrats believe they have their best shot in years to take out one of Miami's three Cuban American Republicans in Congress in races that are attracting national attention — and loads of money. All three Democrats in the races have outpaced the GOP incumbents in fundraising.
"Everyone's giving me checks,'' said Martinez, who sported a lapel pin that identifies him as one of the Democrats' "Red to Blue'' candidates — among the party's best prospects for ousting a Republican.
And he's about to have national exposure: His campaign said he's been tapped as one of five congressional challengers to share the stage Tuesday night with Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who chairs the national committee charged with boosting the Democratic majority in Congress.
Democrats say voters in Diaz-Balart's majority-Republican district are increasingly more interested in health care and mortgage forclosures and accuse Diaz-Balart of focusing almost entirely on Cuba. Martinez told one interviewer that Diaz-Balart, whose aunt was once married to Fidel Castro, was using his congressional seat to fight a "family feud'' with Castro.
"You can't do that,'' he said. "It's like the Hatfields and McCoys.''
Diaz-Balart called the remarks "offensive'' to the Cuban political prisoners he says he views as "heroes,'' and shrugged off Martinez's calls for a televised debate.
"That's his mantra,'' Diaz- Balart said. "There'll be debates. We'll figure out the schedule.''
Though some of Diaz-Balart's GOP colleagues in vulnerable seats are skipping next week's Republican convention in Minneapolis — where President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney will appear amid declining popularity ratings— the Miami congressman said he never hestitated to embrace the GOP brand.
"After eight years of a presidency, there's an inevitable factor there,'' he acknowledged. "But people in my district know my record. And they know what party I'm a member of. It makes no sense trying to hide that you're a member of a party.''
Diaz-Balart, who will participate Tuesday in a press conference from the GOP command center along with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, is one of a handful of high-profile surrogates making the Republican case. They're aided by about two dozen McCain and Republican National Committee staffers who have set up laptops and constantly monitor a wall of flat-screen TVs to dispatch the Republican message.
"We want to make sure we're available to tell the other side of the story,'' said Republican National Committee chairman Mike Duncan, who led reporters on a tour of the facility, dotted with posters that proclaim the party's take on the convention: "Not Ready 08. A Mile High, An Inch Deep.''
To reach local media in key battleground states like Florida, the campaign has a satellite truck in the parking lot that transmits television interviews with top surrogates.
Before Diaz-Balart took the stage, Debra ûBartoshevich, a former Clinton delegate who stars in a new McCain TV ad, took her turn in the satellite studio, telling viewers about her decision to back McCain.
The party set up a similar incursion at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004; Democrats responded at the Republican National Convention in New York with a team of their own.
"I saw [U.S. Rep.] Rahm Emanuel making the convention rounds in 2004,'' Diaz- Balart said of the Illinois Democrat and frequent party attack dog. "I'm aware of the tradition.
"It's part of our democracy,'' he said "It's always good for the voice of the opposition to be heard.''