WASHINGTON — Just 10 months into the job and before a GOP presidential nominee has emerged, national Republican Party general chairman Mel Martinez said Friday that he's calling it quits and will focus on his job as a Florida senator.
The news wasn't unexpected, though Martinez had been expected to stay at the Republican National Committee until a GOP presidential nominee was chosen, most likely next spring.
But Martinez said in a conference call that he'd achieved his goals — among them, putting the party on sound financial footing — and believed it was time to leave.
"It became increasingly apparent things were in sufficiently good shape, and it was probably a good moment to get back to my main job, my real obligation and passion," Martinez said.
Martinez, who kept a low profile as a GOP leader, was a reluctant party boss from the start. President Bush tapped the Cuba-born senator to be the public face of the party a week after the Republicans lost control of Congress in November amid declining support from Hispanics.
Martinez told reporters at the time that he was taking the job as a favor to Bush and that his first responsibility was his job as senator.
His appointment, ratified by the full RNC in January, was greeted with dismay by party conservatives, who opposed his embrace of the immigration package that Bush was pushing.
Martinez said the immigration rift in the party "played no role whatsoever" in his decision to leave.
Martinez, who doesn't face re-election until 2010, has taken a battering in the polls for his immigration stance, and some Republicans suggested he'd benefit by focusing on his own prospects for re-election. Democrats suggested that he was fleeing a "sinking Republican ship" to repair his poll numbers, which are below 50 percent.
"For too long, Martinez's loyalty to President Bush has trumped his responsibilities as Florida's junior senator," Florida Democratic Party spokesman Alejandro Miyar said.
Martinez called Miyar's comment "politics as usual." But he acknowledged that the balance had been difficult at times and that he'd been forced to press party chairman Mike Duncan, who'll assume Martinez's duties at the party, into service when he had to cancel appearances because of his Senate duties.
"I think that the conflicting pressures and my always making the choice for the Senate, which is what I should and always did, at times caused frustration in not being able to get to an event or give a speech," he said. "The source of some frustration probably played into it."
Republicans said Martinez's departure returns the party to having only one person serve as chair. Bush said in a statement that he was grateful for Martinez's tenure, adding that he'd "served his party with the same distinction he serves his country."
"When Mel accepted the position as general chairman of the Republican National Committee, his goal was to ensure our party had the structure and resources in place for all Republican candidates in the 2008 elections to be successful," Bush said. "He has more than fulfilled that mission."