Mel Martinez’s victory in Florida’s Republican U.S. Senate primary Tuesday means that the 2004 presidential election fight for Latino voters -- especially Cuban Americans -- has been joined by a key supporter of Bush in this battleground state.
Earlier this year, the Bush administration angered some in the Cuban American community who interpreted new restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba as an intrusion into their extended family relations.
But the Martinez campaign infuses an element of ethnic pride among Latinos here that Bush supporters hope will translate to votes for the president.
If elected, Martinez -- who served Bush as secretary of Housing and Urban Development -- would become the first Cuban American in the Senate. He and Democrat Ken Salazar in Colorado are attempting to become the first Latinos to serve in the Senate since 1976.
The desire among many conservative Cuban Americans to sweep Martinez into office is likely to bring more middle-aged and elderly voters to the polls. That, in turn, is expected to shore up support for Bush, who in 2000 was supported by more than 80% of Cuban American voters in Florida. Bush won the state by 537 votes.
“Having Mel Martinez out on the streets of Florida, trying to drum up votes, will definitely help President Bush in the eyes of older Cuban American voters,” said Miami pollster Sergio Bendixen.
“Cubans have had a history over the past 20 years of showing up at the polls to elect one of their own, whether it’s for the school board or mayor or for Congress.”
Apart from the fight for the Latino vote, Martinez also faces some remedial work after running to the right to beat former Rep. Bill McCollum in the GOP primary. His task now in his campaign against Democrat Betty Castor, the former state education commissioner, is to move back toward the center, where a large number of undecided and swing voters in Florida reside.
Demonstrating the importance the Bush camp places in his candidacy, Martinez is scheduled to speak tonight at the Republican National Convention in New York.
Supporters for Sen. John F. Kerry, Bush’s Democratic opponent, said they doubted that Martinez would have much effect on the presidential race.
“With the controversy over the new Cuba remittance and visitation policy, the president has his own problems in the Cuban American community, and no one can repair those for him,” said Matt Miller, a Kerry spokesman in Florida.
But Jennifer Coxe, a spokeswoman for Martinez, said her candidate’s popularity would mean greater support for Bush.
“Mel enjoys solid support among Hispanics across Florida, not just Cuban Americans,” she said. “That said, turnout among Cuban Americans this November will reach historic highs for a chance to put one of their own in Congress. And voters know that Mel Martinez and President Bush share the same compassionate values.”
Josefina Rosenthal, a Miami antiques dealer, said she was going to vote for Martinez and Bush -- so she could sleep at night. “Both these men stand for a strong national security,” she said Tuesday. “I don’t care if I have to eat beans and rice all day, I want to know that I live in a secure country.”
Horacio Garcia, a Little Havana restaurant owner, agreed.
“Mr. Martinez was a shining star in the Bush administration. We’re all proud of him, and I want to be one of the first to shake his hand when he goes back to Washington,” he said.
The Martinez victory was part of a double dose of bad news for Kerry in Florida this week. Independent Ralph Nader was placed on the Florida ballot Tuesday as the candidate of the Reform Party, a development that could lure votes away from the Democrats.
Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.