Politics & Government

Democrats eye Florida's Martinez as their next GOP target

WASHINGTON — Fresh off President-elect Barack Obama's victory in Florida, Democrats are already looking to 2010 -- and Sen. Mel Martinez as a potential target.

The Orlando Republican spent much of the fall campaigning for Sen. John McCain, leaving his own campaign coffers largely idle and prompting even Florida Republicans to speculate whether the first term GOP'er will seek another term in 2010. The prospect that he won't run has party insiders speculating on who would run, including Gov. Charlie Crist or outgoing House Speaker Marco Rubio.

Polls suggest Martinez's ratings are shaky, prompting the Cook Political Report last week to call his race a ''tossup'' -- even without an announced challenger.

And Democrats are floating names. Among them: newly elected state Sen. Dan Gelber, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and various members of Congress, including Rep. Allen Boyd. Martinez, though, says the speculation may be premature.

''The rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated,'' Martinez joked as he left a Senate hearing on Thursday.

He said he expects to announce in January that he's running for reelection.

''I have every anticipation of running for reelection but I'm not going to [announce] until I'm prepared to make that decision,'' he told McClatchy. "I'll be talking to family over the holidays and I expect in January to be ready to go.''

But polls and some independent observers suggest the first Cuban-born U.S. senator who narrowly won election in 2004 may be in for a struggle. A Democratic polling firm last week said three polls over the summer pegged Martinez's popularity at below 25 percent and suggested he was the ``most endangered incumbent in the country.''

Martinez argues he's ''less vulnerable than they say'' and pointed to a Republican Party of Florida press release that took exception to the Public Policy Polling survey and noted that other Democratic-leaning polls, including Hamilton Campaigns, gave him a 51 percent approval rating.

Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the independent Cook Political Report, says she pegged Martinez as potentially vulnerable for a number of factors, including Obama's win in Florida.

''Barack Obama proved you can't call Florida reliably Republican,'' Duffy said.

She noted that Martinez only has $1.3 million in campaign cash for a race she estimates will require $25 million.

''It's going to be an expensive race,'' she said. "One of the best ways not to have a race is to build a war chest that's intimidating, and Martinez has not done that.''

Martinez said he didn't do his own fundraising because he was interested in helping other Republicans, including McCain.

Duffy suggested Martinez's abbreviated stint as chairman of the Republican National Committee appears to have hurt his popularity and dented his fundraising. Martinez spent just nine months in the job before stepping down. ''It was less time he got to spend at home, less time he got to spend on his own politics,'' she said.

Gelber, who said it was premature ''but only a little'' to talk about challenging Martinez, was critical of his RNC chairmanship. ''How do you represent only Republicans when you're supposed to be representing everybody?'' he said.

Earlier polls suggested Martinez's popularity was hurt by his championing of a path to citizenship for illegal immigration.

But he has warned that the Republican Party risks relegating itself to minority status if it alienates Hispanic voters with divisive immigration rhetoric.