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Choice of Florida senator as party chairman rankles some in GOP

WASHINGTON—A group of border state Republicans, including the GOP party chair in President Bush's home state of Texas, plan to cast what they acknowledge may be only symbolic votes against Florida Sen. Mel Martinez as the new chief cheerleader for the national Republican Party.

Martinez, who ardently champions giving some illegal immigrants a shot at citizenship even as others in his party push for stricter controls at the border, is poised to be elected Friday as general chairman of the Republican National Committee. His selection signals the GOP's interest in boosting its appeal among Hispanics, the fastest growing electorate in the United States.

But some conservatives and anti-immigration forces have lambasted President Bush for selecting the Cuba-born Martinez as chairman of the Republican National Committee, singling out his support for what they call "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.

RNC members from border states, including Texas and Arizona, plan to vote against Martinez when the RNC gathers for its winter meeting in Washington starting Thursday—a meeting that comes only two months after what Bush called a "thumping" at the polls.

"We've been bombarded with e-mails, letters and postcards from Texans troubled about Senator Martinez," said Tina Benkiser, chair of the Republican Party of Texas and a definite Martinez "no" vote.

Martinez's supporters—and even some critics—say the opposition is unlikely to derail his election.

"There's a number of states who are opposed, but I don't think it's going to be significant," said RNC member Randy Pullen, who's running for chairman of the Arizona Republican Party and plans to vote against Martinez. "I like Senator Martinez, I think he has a great story, he's been very successful and he represents the American dream. I just wish from our perspective along the border that his position on immigration was different."

Though the criticism of Martinez reflects the myriad challenges he'll face, Republicans, who lost both chambers of Congress in November, are desperate to reclaim majority status. Martinez's selection, strategists say, is seen as a way of positioning the party for the future, even though it risks alienating part of the party's base.

"It's not a question of a smart move, it's a question of survival, a recognition of the political realities of campaigning in the 21st century," said Fernand Amandi, executive vice president at Miami-based Bendixen and Associates, which specializes in Hispanic polling, mostly for Democrats. "It shows that Republicans can admit they made a mistake and that they know how to count. For Republicans to be able to be competitive nationally and in battleground states, you can't afford to lose the Hispanic community."

Bush, who ran ads in Spanish, took 40 percent of the Hispanic vote when he was re-elected in 2004, a record for Republicans. But various factors, including a divisive debate over immigration, eroded those gains in 2006, political analysts say. Within 25 years, some models suggest, Hispanic voters could make up as much as 25 percent of the electorate.

Martinez's first hurdle may be the warring factions within his own party. Colorado Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo, a potential 2008 presidential contender and a House leader in efforts to stop illegal immigration, suggested that if Martinez continued to push for a comprehensive immigration plan, "the party could be headed for another shellacking at the polls in 2008."

The stakes couldn't be much higher for Martinez: The race for the White House is wide open and Republicans have to defend 21 seats in the Senate. Democrats, in contrast, have only 12 members up for re-election.

"He's going to have one of the greatest challenges of any chairman," said Washington lobbyist and former Republican Party of Florida chairman Al Cardenas.

"He's facing bouncing back from a disastrous election with the same issues on the table, preparing the party for a convention, maintaining the White House, retaking Congress and being a prominent spokesperson to counter the Democrats," Cardenas said. "And he's got to do all that while taking care of constituents back at home."

Martinez himself will be up for re-election in 2010 and will essentially lose two years of fundraising as he boosts the RNC coffers. Analysts suggest he'll have to carefully navigate his appearances as RNC chief, so as not to jeopardize moderates in Florida whom he'll have to attract to win re-election.

Martinez declined to be interviewed for this story, with his office saying it would be "presumptuous" to do so until he's officially elected chair.

But Martinez made clear in interviews after the offer was announced in November that Bush lobbied him to take the job.

"I acquiesced, agreed to do it," Martinez said. "He told me he thought it was something I could do and that I could do well and that I ought to take it."

Martinez said he put limits on the position—a staffer will handle day-to-day details—because of what he called his "main job" as senator.

Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who'll be up for re-election in 2008, said he's confident Martinez can handle the job.

"There's always going to be divisions, but we've tried to be a big enough tent," Cornyn said, noting that Martinez will "represent a face of the party that is very important as we look to grow the party."

"Mel is one of those kinds of guys—he deals well with everybody," Cornyn said. "I think he'll be able to navigate his way."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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