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For Martinez, it's always campaign time

The junior senator won't be up for re-election until 2010, but he's not resting while GOP colleagues need help.

By ANITA KUMAR
Published October 13, 2006


WASHINGTON - Sen. Mel Martinez won't be on the ballot in November, but one wouldn't know it by the schedule he keeps.

Florida's junior senator has embarked on an aggressive, mostly behind-the-scenes effort to campaign and raise money for fellow Republicans across the country.

That continues during Congress' current lengthy recess before the midterm elections, in which Republicans are fighting to retain control of the Senate and the House.

In the past year, Martinez has hosted a slew of fundraisers in Florida for at least 10 U.S. senators and a number of public and private campaign events for a half-dozen or more Florida candidates.

They include candidates in some of the most-watched races in the nation, including Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Virginia Sen. George Allen, Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist and U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale.

Martinez has doled out $130,000 to $140,000 to candidates in Florida and across the nation from a political action committee he opened last year.

In election years, especially years where a single seat could determine which party controls Congress, everyone is expected to pitch in. Those who are not running themselves are supposed to help others from their party.

But some Republican colleagues credit Martinez with using his rising prominence in Florida and Washington to do even more.

U.S. Rep. Ric Keller of Orlando said he was searching for a "big-name, celebrity-type" to headline a fundraiser.

He asked Martinez.

At an Embassy Suites in Orlando, donors gave $500 to have a photo taken with Martinez.

The event brought in $100,000 for Keller.

"I think people are really excited to see Mel," Keller said. "He has a higher profile than most freshmen senators."

Nathan Gonzales, political editor at the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, described Martinez as one of the most sought senators, trailing only Senate leaders and those who are considered superstars in their parties, such as Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and Republicans John McCain and John Thune.

Indeed, Martinez came to Capitol Hill last year with a cachet few other freshmen have.

A former member of the Cabinet and the nation's first Cuban-American senator, he has the ear of the president and congressional leaders.

He was given top committee assignments. He has been chosen to go on coveted trips, including one with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to Afghanistan and Iraq. His colleagues look to him for leadership on certain issues such as immigration reform.

With the state's top Republican -- Florida Gov. Jeb Bush - returning to private life in January, friends and colleagues say more Republicans, particularly in Florida, are looking to Martinez.

"He's a star," Crist says simply.

Recently, Martinez chaired a major fundraising dinner - the Senate Majority Celebration - which included a speech by Vice President Dick Cheney and garnered $4-million for the national committee that assists Republicans running for the Senate.

National Republican Senatorial Committee chairwoman Elizabeth Dole asked Martinez to chair the dinner - a job that requires him to make sure senators meet their fundraising goals - in part because of his ease in getting along with people, committee spokesman Brian Nick said.

Several senators even asked Martinez to run to replace Dole next year, but he declined.

Martinez downplayed his campaign and fundraising activities, saying he merely tries to help out in his spare time.

Some candidates ask Martinez for help directly, including many senators who want to come to Florida, the fourth-largest state with its large donor base. He volunteered to help others.

"That's what we all do," he said recently. "We all help one another."

It's expected that elected officials help candidates in their own party if they are not running themselves.

But Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said it's also about paying people back who helped in your campaign.

"It's returning favors," Duffy said. "The more a member is helped, the more he helps out."

Crist and Vern Buchanan, a car dealer running for the U.S. House in Sarasota, both helped Martinez in his tough 2004 campaign against Democrat Betty Castor.

Martinez has hosted at least three fundraisers for Crist. One recently in Washington was attended by about 100 people, including more than a half-dozen members of Congress. Martinez and Crist, who served as his statewide campaign chairman, talk at least once a week.

Martinez has held at least two fundraisers for Buchanan - one in Miami in July and one in late September in Washington - and appeared at a campaign event with him in Florida. His schedule also included an event last week for Buchanan, alongside Cheney.

"Mel is working really hard," said Buchanan, who served as Martinez's finance chairman. "It's about keeping control of the Senate and House."

Shaw, who is running in what is considered one of the closest House races in the nation, said recently that Martinez offered to help him.

Martinez hosted a breakfast fundraiser for Shaw near the Capitol.

Shaw raised about $25,000.

"Obviously, we help each other out," Shaw said. "We work together. It's important that we keep both houses."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Anita Kumar can be reached at akumar@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0576.