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As RNC leader, Martinez doesn't moderate his views on immigration

WASHINGTON—Florida Sen. Mel Martinez took the helm of the Republican National Committee three months ago, amid grumbling by some in the GOP about his stance on illegal immigration.

But if those critics were expecting Martinez to shift his position, they've surely been sorely disappointed.

Instead, Martinez, as general chair of the party, continues in his "day job" as a senator to push for federal legislation that toughens border security but provides citizenship opportunities for some illegal immigrants. He's working the issue with like-minded senators, warning in an interview with a Capitol Hill newspaper that the GOP is "engaged in a struggle for the soul of the party."

Indeed, Martinez acknowledges that he hasn't reached out to mend fences with his immigration critics, a group he discounts as a "couple of handfuls of people."

"I didn't see a huge party division that requires fixing a rift," Martinez said in a telephone interview. "I felt like it was overblown.

"And the whole issue seems to die out as people get to know me," he said.

Martinez took the party job—essentially chief cheerleader and fundraiser for Republicans—as a favor to President Bush, with the understanding that his first priority would be his work as Florida's junior senator.

"So far, so good," he says of his first months on the job. "I've been able to be as much a senator as I wanted to be, which was the first priority, and doing the RNC when and if I can."

He's missed only four of the Senate's 135 votes, according to a Washington Post database, and his presence as RNC chief has been decidedly low-key; he's yet to become a fixture on the Sunday morning talk shows. In fact, Martinez says he hasn't been asked: "I think they've got presidential candidates they're more interested in."

A recent St. Petersburg Times headline declared, "Here and There, Yet Somehow Nowhere." But Martinez and the RNC take umbrage at suggestions that he's not fully engaged in the fray.

The Republican National Committee countered with statistics, noting that Martinez has conducted more than 50 interviews and has ramped up the party's Hispanic outreach. Among his appearances: Univision, Telemundo, CNN en Espanol, CNN en Espanol Radio, La Opinion and Radio Bilingue.

He delivered the keynote address to the RNC's winter finance meeting at the Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla., and traveled to California, where he introduced the president at a fundraiser. RNC officials said they consider him "critically important" to their efforts: The Republican National Committee was the only GOP party fundraising organization to outpace its Democratic counterpart, the Democratic National Committee, in the first three months of the year.

"He's been very good of giving his time," said Mike Duncan, the RNC chairman and former general counsel who handles the day-to-day details of running the operation.

Still, Martinez acknowledged that he's not necessarily comfortable being out front. He told Bush in November when he was appointed that he wouldn't be an "attack dog."

"Everything I do has to be comfortable with my style," Martinez said in the interview. "I'm not a big flash in the pan. I like to be solid in what I do."

Supporters suggest Martinez's pace is a combination of the senator—elected to office in 2004—finding a comfort zone and a reflection of the malaise the party is experiencing, with Bush's poll ratings in a downward spiral and an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq grinding into its fifth year.

"He may not have been as visible in the first three months, but as a senator he's got to find the balance and adapt," said David Johnson, a former executive director of the Republican Party of Florida. "And his job is a challenge on every front: Iraq, hearings in Washington before a new Democratic Congress. . . . It's been a bumpy road since November."

But critics suggest that it's time to step up.

"At this time Republicans need someone talking about who Republicans are as a party, our core values," said Tina Benkiser, the Republican Party chair in Texas who opposed Martinez's selection and said she's not heard a word from him since his election in January. "We need to be making our case and we've seen very little of our Republican general chair."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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