Senate Contender Mel Martinez: Key for Bush in Florida

Florida will once again turn out to be pivotal for who wins the White House, and President Bush¹s success could hinge on the campaign to replace retiring Democrat Bob Graham.

Graham’s retirement gives the GOP a chance to increase its razor-thin majority in the U.S. Senate and secure for Bush Florida’s 27 electoral votes. But first, Florida voters need to pick a Republican candidate in their Aug. 31 primary who can win in November.

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The best candidate is shaping up to be Mel Martinez, President Bush’s former housing secretary.

Martinez entered the race late but has gained momentum against the presumptive front-runner, Bill McCollum. McCollum was a popular 10-term congressman from Longwood. Though he has won prominent endorsements and done well raising money, he has failed to light any fires.

Others running in the GOP primary including state House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, businessman Doug Gallagher and Larry Klayman, formerly of Judicial Watch, but the race is looking like a two-man contest between Martinez and McCollum.

McCollum lost in 2000, while Bush squeaked by with 537 votes to win Florida, and some pundits wonder how McCollum could eke out a victory this November.

The former congressman disaffected the state’s active social conservatives just before the 2000 election when he joined Sen. Teddy Kennedy and Rep. Barney Frank in supporting “sexual orientation” as a protected class against “hate crimes.” This year, he again surprised conservatives when he came out against President Bush on taxpayer-funded stem cell research that destroys human embryos.

Martinez opposes the inclusion of sexual orientation in the “hate crimes” bill and taxpayer funding of research that destroys human life.

Martinez has been the beneficiary of several high-profile endorsements from organizations that see his candidacy as key to keeping Republican control of the Senate and re-electing President Bush.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has thrown its support behind Martinez. “He understands that America’s businesses are the spark plug for economic prosperity and job growth,” chamber vice president Bill Miller told NewsMax.

The chamber has a reputation for picking winners. It endorsed 10 senatorial candidates in 2002, and eight now occupy the upper chamber.

Martinez also is being backed by GOP senators including Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.

Jack Kemp, another former HUD secretary, has endorsed Martinez. “Mel would make a great quarterback for the state of Florida,” Kemp said. “I know Bill [McCollum]; he’s a good friend of mine. But look, we need somebody who can win.”

Ken Connor, former president of Family Research Council, added his support. “Mel is a man of faith, a trusted friend and someone we can count on to do what is right in the U.S. Senate,” he said.

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Although he spent most of his career in Florida, Martinez made a mark on the Republican leadership during his three years as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He has several attributes that make him stand out in a crowded field.

He escaped to Florida from Cuba in 1962. At 15, he was one of about 14,000 children sent to the U.S. by their parents in a Catholic Church program. He lived with two foster families until his parents were able to come across four years later.

His career path took him from supermarket bag boy to Orange County chairman, the chief executive of the large county that includes Orlando.

Even people who disagree with Martinez politically concede that he holds strong values.

“With him, family values aren¹t just lip service, he really means it,” child advocacy lawyer and Democrat Karen Gievers told the Palm Beach Post.

Martinez has succeeded in bridging the unique ethnic gaps in Florida’s electorate. Cuban Americans are concentrated in the Miami area. In recent years, the Cuban-American vote has become increasingly Democrat. Though Bush carried that bloc after the Clinton-Gore administration’s Elian Gonzalez fiasco created an uproar in Miami, Cuban Americans have become apathetic about the Bush White House.

Martinez is viewed as key in wooing these voters, as well as the rest of the state’s growing Latino vote. Latinos make up an estimated 17 percent of Florida’s vote and traditionally vote Democrat.

Mel Martinez could help President Bush win Florida and thus re-election.