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Conservatives wary of Bush pick for RNC

Times Staff Writers

President Bush’s decision to back Sen. Mel Martinez to help lead the Republican Party, a move intended to appeal to disaffected Latino voters, drew sharp criticism Tuesday from some of the party’s core conservatives, who disdain the Florida lawmaker’s support for liberalized immigration laws.

The decision to name the Cuban-born Martinez as Republican National Committee general chairman served as an acknowledgment that the GOP had lost ground among Latinos; in last week’s midterm election, the Republican share of the Latino vote dropped to 30% from more than 40% in 2004. Party leaders have said they need to build more support among Latinos for the GOP to regain its dominance.

Martinez supported legislation to create a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for many immigrants who are in this country illegally; Bush and many Latinos also backed versions of that plan. But the legislation that passed the Senate this year created a firestorm of opposition among conservative Republicans and much of the House GOP leadership, who derided it as amnesty for lawbreakers.

Criticism of Martinez came Tuesday from several conservatives, including Curly Haugland, an RNC member from North Dakota, who said he believed the party was far too focused on pandering to minorities.

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“We’re losing our base in droves because they don’t get campaigned to,” he said, referring to GOP-leaning conservatives.

Randy Pullen of Arizona, another RNC member and an activist against illegal immigration, likened Martinez’s selection to the episode last year in which Bush named his longtime friend and legal counsel to the Supreme Court, only to reverse himself after a furious conservative backlash.

“I’m hoping that it’s not another Harriet Miers moment,” Pullen said.

Another leading critic of Bush’s stance on immigration, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, offered tepid support for Martinez.

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Tancredo called the senator a “competent spokesman for our party,” but added that if he “rejects the will of rank-and-file Republicans and uses the position to advocate for things like the president’s amnesty proposal, then I believe the party could be headed for another shellacking at the polls in 2008.”

Members of the Republican National Committee will meet in January to replace outgoing Chairman Ken Mehlman, who will leave after a two-year term in which an aggressive minority outreach effort was hampered by the immigration debate and other issues.

Despite the unhappiness among some RNC members over Martinez’s selection, he is expected to win election as general chairman, making him the GOP’s most visible spokesman leading up to the 2008 presidential election. The party’s general counsel, Robert M. “Mike” Duncan, is expected to become RNC chairman and run day-to-day operations.

Bush introduced Martinez in a brief Oval Office ceremony Tuesday as his recommended pick for the party leadership.

The selection, which became public Monday, made it clear that Bush and his chief political strategist, Karl Rove, believed the party’s future depended on striking a moderate image on immigration. It also suggested that the White House saw the party’s support for get-tough legislation on the issue as contributing to its midterm election losses.

Conservative lawmakers not only stopped Bush’s guest worker plan in Congress this year, but they passed a law calling for 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. Bush signed the legislation in the waning days of the campaign in hopes of galvanizing conservative voters.

But the move failed to save several Republican candidates who had called for an illegal-immigration crackdown. And exit polls suggested that many Latinos abandoned the GOP as a reaction to rhetoric that they viewed as negative toward all immigrants, legal and illegal.

Martinez demonstrated Tuesday that he would not shy away from the vision of immigration laws that he and Bush had long supported. Emerging from his White House meeting with the president, he told reporters that his party struck the wrong tone on immigration during the election, a tone he promised to change. “Border security only, enforcement only, harshness only, is not the message that I believe America wants to convey,” he said.

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Martinez, 60, whose full name is Melquiades Rafael Martinez, fled Cuba at age 15 with assistance from a program that helped children leave the communist country. He lived with foster families until he was reunited with his family four years later.

A trial lawyer, he was the elected chairman of Orange County, Fla., and was later chosen by Bush to be housing secretary. In 2004, he became the first Cuban American to be elected to the Senate.

Latino leaders and Republican strategists said elevating Martinez’s profile could rebuild goodwill among minority voters.

“You take a Hispanic senator who happens to be Catholic, and that’s a direct response to a community that happens to be disappointed,” said Al Cardenas, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida who, like Martinez, was born in Cuba but moved to the U.S. to flee Fidel Castro.

The Rev. Luis Cortes Jr., founder of the influential Philadelphia-based ministry Esperanza USA, who has been courted by the White House over the last six years, said Martinez’s selection made an important statement to conservatives who had backed strict proposals, such as one that would have made it a felony to help illegal immigrants.

“A lot of the Republican candidates chose immigration as the wedge issue, and polls seem to bear out that it was an error for them to do that,” Cortes said. “And I think Mel Martinez, because of his life story, is a perfect person to help them find their way back from that era.”

White House political director Sara Taylor said Martinez could “communicate with the fastest-growing population in a way they can relate to.”

She added that he would prove crucial in building Latino support in a post-Bush era. “We’ve seen in the last election that the president’s popularity [with Latinos] is not transferable to House and Senate candidates,” Taylor said.

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Martinez will remain in the Senate. He won his seat there in 2004, after the White House urged him to run.

GOP strategists said Martinez would help build support for the party in Florida, a 2008 battleground state.

Martinez said he would remain neutral in the Republican presidential primaries, though he appeared during this year’s campaign with one leading contender, Arizona Sen. John McCain, after they both endorsed Florida Gov.-elect Charlie Crist in his primary.

Even with Republicans soon to be in the minority on Capitol Hill, there is no assurance that an immigration overhaul package will pass. The Democrats preparing to take power in the House and Senate are also struggling with their approach to the issue.

Democratic leaders are trying to balance their desire to woo Latino voters with concerns from some labor leaders that new immigration laws would lead to lower wages.

Moreover, some in the party fear that passing a guest worker program and pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants would leave Democrats vulnerable to being portrayed as soft on illegal immigration.

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peter.wallsten@latimes.com

nicole.gaouette@latimes.com

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Begin text of infobox

Republican share of the Latino vote:

35% - Bush in 2000

44% - Bush in 2004

30% - House in 2006

Source: CNN exit poll


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