Martinez slotted to speak on convention’s closing night

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – (KRT) – The winner of Florida’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate will likely get a featured spot at the GOP national convention – just so long as it’s Mel Martinez.

Martinez is listed as a tentative speaker on the convention’s closing night, Sept. 2, playing a coveted role leading into the climactic acceptance speech by President Bush.

Although six other Republicans are vying for Florida’s Senate nomination Aug. 31, only Martinez appears bound to be showcased at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, where the GOP will tout the party’s appeal to minorities.

It’s the latest snub of front-runner Bill McCollum by his own party in a race where Martinez has garnered support from GOP leaders and the quiet backing of the Republican White House.

A convention spokeswoman, Alison Kogut, said Wednesday that although Martinez is not officially listed as speaker, he could be added “very soon.”

The Washington Post reported that a GOP draft convention schedule lists Martinez speaking soon after retired Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the Iraq war effort. Next to his name is “(Primary?)”, suggesting that for Martinez to speak, he first must win.

But that’s no guarantee. Martinez continues to trail former U.S. Rep McCollum of Longwood in most polls. McCollum, a 60-year-old native of rural Brooksville, apparently doesn’t carry the same appeal. He draws no mention in the convention lineup.

A former federal housing secretary and refugee from Castro’s Cuba, Martinez was pushed into the Senate race by the White House, which sees his candidacy as driving Cuban-American voters to the polls in support of the president.

“We don’t really know any more about it,” Jennifer Coxe, a Martinez spokeswoman, said of the speaking slot. “But it would be a great opportunity.”

The McCollum campaign declined comment.

Martinez has been the favorite of the Republican establishment since he left the Bush Cabinet last December to prepare his Florida campaign.

The chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Virginia Sen. George Allen, took the unusual step of endorsing Martinez, and three former Florida GOP chairmen have also added their support.

Martinez, who came to foster parents in Florida as a teen-ager, is a former Orange County chairman and past president of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers. His story is familiar to the sizable Cuban-American community in this battleground state.

At a fund-raiser in Jacksonville in May, former Republican presidential candidate Jack Kemp recognized Martinez’s potential to the party.

“Can you imagine what it means to have a Mel Martinez speaking in New York to millions and millions of people?” Kemp told donors. “This guy can make a difference.”

Bob Mahlburg of the Tallahassee bureau contributed to this report.

© 2004, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).