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Florida senator to chair National Republican Committee

WASHINGTON—Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, the first Cuban-born U.S. senator, is poised to become chair of the Republican National Committee, a week after the GOP lost control of Congress amid declining support from Hispanics.

His appointment, coming as the party gears up for the 2008 presidential election, signals the Republicans' increased effort to woo Hispanic voters, who voted for President Bush in record numbers in 2004 but were less enthusiastic for GOP candidates last week.

Martinez, 60, will remain a U.S. senator while an executive director carries out the day-to-day duties of the RNC, GOP officials said Monday. Martinez's office wouldn't confirm the appointment, instead referring calls to the RNC, which also refused comment.

Martinez will be the public face of the party, traveling, raising money and speaking on behalf of the party, much as he did this election for candidates such as Florida Gov.-elect Charlie Crist. The party's general counsel, Mike Duncan, will serve as chairman and handle the day-to-day details.

An official announcement is expected later this week, but Republicans close to Martinez hailed the news.

"Mel understands we had a tough election cycle and we want to rebuild," said former Republican Party of Florida Chairman Al Cardenas. "If you think about it, central casting couldn't have come up with a better person to serve."

Cardenas noted that Martinez is Catholic and Hispanic—two categories where Republicans saw erosion in the midterm elections. And he said Martinez has developed a reputation as a consensus builder, working closely with Democrats and Bush to develop a new comprehensive immigration policy.

Also, Cardenas noted, Martinez won't have to run for re-election until 2010.

"He can spend the next two years doing what the party would have probably asked him to do anyhow, which is traveling the country to meet and talk with folks," Cardenas said.

Democrats said the pick suggests Republicans are worried about the Hispanic vote. Bush garnered close to 50 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, but Republicans saw that slip to 30 percent during the midterm election—possibly because of the negative tone of the immigration debate.

"This is not only (about the) Hispanic vote short term, this is about the Hispanic vote and how to be a viable party in the future," said Joe Garcia, a Democratic strategist in Florida. "This is way beyond 2008. Hispanics are the fastest-growing electorate and they've (Republicans) been failing it."

The high-profile position comes as Martinez emerged as a leading player in a number of national issues, including pushing an immigration overhaul proposal that closely mirrored Bush's plan to give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

The national stage was a turnaround for the Republican. In his first months in Congress, he was criticized for his involvement in an explosive political memo that suggested that Republicans could use the plight of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman, to bash Democrats.

Martinez, who served as housing secretary in Bush's Cabinet and whom the White House recruited to run for the Senate, also labored to put behind him a bitter primary against a fellow Republican whom he accused of "playing to the radical homosexual lobby."

He apologized but blamed both incidents on his staff.

Martinez, who fled Cuba at 15, resettled with a foster family in Orlando, Fla., and uses his experience to tout himself as living the American dream. He got a prime-time speaking part at the Republican National Convention in 2004 to tout his candidacy and to put a Hispanic face on the GOP.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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