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Orlando Sentinel

Bush's Inroads With Hispanic Voters Pave Path For Martinez

Mark Silva

November 24, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

Reading too much into one man's success is misleading.

The Republican Party reads Gov. Jeb Bush's success among Hispanic voters in Central Florida as a sign that the GOP has built "a beachhead" in a stronghold of the Democratic Party.

But Bush's margin of victory among a growing force of Latino voters is no guarantee for any Republican who follows.

Some Republicans, yes.

Such as Mel Martinez.

The former Orange County chairman and now U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development campaigns naturally in precincts where a Spanish-speaking Bush triumphed. Martinez, Cuban-born, came to the United States in the "Pedro Pan" airlifts of refugee children.

Martinez campaigned cross-country for fellow Republicans this year, from California to Ohio, Missouri to Florida. He accompanied Bush in Spanish-tongued realms where the GOP now counts its blessings.

Martinez's ability to talk the talk and his own moderate politics will propel him to the front of the lineup for U.S. Senate or governor in two or four years.

The length of those lines will depend on Florida's senior senator, Democrat Bob Graham, who was ready to seek re-election in 2004 before Democrats lost control of the Senate. Now he promises a decision about a fourth term after Christmas.

Should Graham retire, the Republican best-suited to run for that rare open Senate seat will be Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan.

That could save 2006, the year the governor's office opens to all bidders, for the one Republican who has lusted after the office the longest: Tom Gallagher.

But my bet rests with Graham to run again, forcing smart Republicans into a crowd around the '06 contests.

Republicans forced Gallagher out of the last Senate race, in 2000, and they lost it. The state treasurer, one-time education commissioner and long-time legislator won election statewide four times before winning the new post of chief financial officer without opposition. His party owes him the pick of '06.

But Brogan is a winner, too, governor his natural avenue.

And with the ultra-moderate Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson seeking re-election in '06, it will take someone such as Martinez to woo Democratic voters in that contest. It isn't as simple as Bush made it appear this year.

Retiring GOP Chairman Al Cardenas points to a Central Florida state House district as proof of his party's progress. In District 49, where Rep. John Quiñones became the first Puerto Rican elected as a Republican legislator, Bush also carried 53 percent of the vote in a district that is 40 percent Hispanic.

From Azalea Park to Kissimmee, Bush carried nearly all the precincts in which Hispanics account for more than 20 percent of the vote. He won 52 percent of the vote in those precincts.

But just two years ago, brother George W. Bush claimed only 36 percent of the vote in the same area's most-Hispanic precincts. This is one of the places where Al Gore came close to winning the presidency.

The governor's 16-point gain over the president's performance there is mainly a reflection of his own appeal. It didn't hurt that Bush taped Spanish-language phone calls supporting Quiñones, or that the Republican Party plowed $200,000 into Quiñones' campaign.

Indeed, the balance of power among Hispanics statewide is shifting. Until recently, Republican-voting Cuban-Americans accounted for 60 percent of the vote. Now, it's 34 percent.

But only the right Republican will ride Bush's inroads.

When Mel Martinez is ready, he will be riding high.

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