DENVER — U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart flew intoenemy territory Monday,tapped as a star of a Republican rapid-response team thatis aggressively looking to putits spin on the Democraticconvention.
From a sleek, high-techwar room set up in a brickbunker about a mile fromwhere Democrats are converging this week, Diaz-Balartzapped Barack Obama andpraised John McCain— inEnglish and Spanish — onradio, television and in print.
"Obama makes greatspeeches but he's not ready tobe president,'' Diaz-Balarttold a Fort Myers televisionstation, via satellite. Earlier,he told CNN Espaúol in aninterview to be nationallybroadcast that McCain is"genuinamente independiente,'' but above all, "unpatriota americano.''
But even as Diaz-Balartwas reaping high-profile publicity and serving as a top surrogate for McCain, the MiamiRepublican's Democratic challenger was nipping at his heelsfrom the Denver hotel whereFlorida's Democrats arecamped out.
In his own ad hoc interviews in the hotel lobby, RaulMartinez reiterated a challenge to debate Diaz-Balart inDenver, before cameras.
"He won't do it at home,''Martinez said. "So let's gohere. We're both here.''
Democrats believe theyhave their best shot in years totake out one of Miami's threeCuban American Republicansin Congress in races that areattracting national attention — and loads of money. Allthree Democrats in the raceshave outpaced the GOPincumbents in fundraising.
"Everyone's giving mechecks,'' said Martinez, whosported a lapel pin that identifies him as one of the Democrats' "Red to Blue'' candidates — among the party'sbest prospects for ousting aRepublican.
And he's about to havenational exposure: His campaign said he's been tapped asone of five congressional challengers to share the stageTuesday night with Rep. ChrisVan Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who chairs the nationalcommittee charged with boosting the Democratic majority inCongress.
Democrats say voters inDiaz-Balart's majority-Republican district are increasinglymore interested in health careand mortgage forclosures andaccuse Diaz-Balart of focusingalmost entirely on Cuba. Martinez told one interviewer thatDiaz-Balart, whose aunt wasonce married to Fidel Castro,was using his congressionalseat to fight a "family feud''with Castro.
"You can't do that,'' hesaid. "It's like the Hatfieldsand McCoys.''
Diaz-Balart called theremarks "offensive'' to theCuban political prisoners hesays he views as "heroes,'' andshrugged off Martinez's callsfor a televised debate.
"That's his mantra,'' Diaz-Balart said. "There'll bedebates. We'll figure out theschedule.''
Though some of Diaz-Balart's GOP colleagues in vulnerable seats are skipping nextweek's Republican conventionin Minneapolis — where President Bush and Vice PresidentDick Cheney will appear amiddeclining popularity ratings— the Miami congressman saidhe never hestitated to embracethe GOP brand.
"After eight years of a presidency, there's an inevitablefactor there,'' he acknowledged. "But people in my district know my record. And theyknow what party I'm a member of. It makes no sense tryingto hide that you're a memberof a party.''
Diaz-Balart, who will participate Tuesday in a pressconference from the GOP command center along with formerMassachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, is one of a handful ofhigh-profile surrogates makingthe Republican case. They'reaided by about two dozenMcCain and RepublicanNational Committee stafferswho have set up laptops andconstantly monitor a wall offlat-screen TVs to dispatch theRepublican message.
"We want to make surewe're available to tell the otherside of the story,'' said Republican National Committeechairman Mike Duncan, wholed reporters on a tour of thefacility, dotted with postersthat proclaim the party's takeon the convention: "Not Ready08. A Mile High, An InchDeep.''
To reach local media in keybattleground states like Florida, the campaign has a satellite truck in the parking lotthat transmits television interviews with top surrogates.
Before Diaz-Balart took thestage, Debra ûBartoshevich, aformer Clinton delegate whostars in a new McCain TV ad,took her turn in the satellitestudio, telling viewers abouther decision to back McCain.
The party set up a similarincursion at the DemocraticNational Convention in Boston in 2004; Democratsresponded at the RepublicanNational Convention in NewYork with a team of their own.
"I saw [U.S. Rep.] RahmEmanuel making the convention rounds in 2004,'' Diaz-Balart said of the Illinois Democrat and frequent partyattack dog. "I'm aware of thetradition.
"It's part of our democracy,'' he said "It's alwaysgood for the voice of the opposition to be heard.''