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Martinez chides GOP candidates

He wants voters to demand concrete ideas on immigration.

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published August 15, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - Sen. Mel Martinez, the head of the Republican National Committee, took a swipe Tuesday at the leading Republican presidential candidates for not offering solid solutions to America's immigration crisis.

The first-term Republican from Orlando, who absorbed enormous criticism mainly from within the GOP for pushing an immigration overhaul that included letting illegal immigrants become citizens, turned the tables on some who had been most critical.

"Presidential contests are about leadership. ... It's about leading on the tough issues," Martinez told the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. "It was easy to say, 'This wasn't good enough, this isn't right, I don't agree with Martinez.' ... But at the end of the day what is your answer? How would you solve this?"

In his remarks, Martinez did not directly refer to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, but he later suggested both candidates, who were critics of the controversial Senate immigration proposal, had mischaracterized the plan. He also urged audience members to pin down the Republican candidates on immigration when they come to St. Petersburg for the YouTube/CNN Republican presidential debate Nov. 28.

"What Mayor Giuliani is offering is an exactly concrete proposal to solve this immigration crisis, and it begins with securing the borders," said Elliot Bundy, a spokesman for Giuliani who in South Carolina on Tuesday fleshed out his immigration proposal.

A Romney campaign spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell, also disputed Martinez's characterization of Romney's immigration platform: "Gov. Romney has made his immigration reform priorities clear: secure the borders, implement an employee verification program with a tamper-proof biometric card and no special pathway toward citizenship for those who broke immigration laws."

Martinez's remarks underscored both the difficulty Republicans are having with the volatile issue of immigration and the delicate position Martinez holds as both a senator and general chairman of the Republican National Committee amid a heated presidential primary.

"It can be a little awkward," acknowledged Martinez, a Cuban-immigrant who is neutral in the presidential race but has called Republican presidential candidate John McCain "courageous" for being a champion of the immigration plan that was so unpopular with much of the Republican base.

In fact, McCain gave a speech in Miami in June, while the Senate was considering the ill-fated immigration plan, that was very similar in theme to the one Martinez gave Tuesday.

"I don't want to in any way intervene in the primary process," Martinez said. "But at the same time, I have an obligation as a senator to speak about the issues."

Romney, who used to use a landscaping company at his home that employed illegal immigrants from Guatemala, last week criticized Giuliani as soft on immigration as New York mayor.

Giuliani lately has been toughening his rhetoric on immigration, saying Tuesday that he intended to end illegal immigration altogether.

His plan would require a uniform identification card for foreign workers and students, and create a database to track the legal status of visitors to the country. He would deport any illegal immigrant who commits a felony, and would require all immigrants who want to become citizens to learn English.

Newsday reported this week that as a top Justice Department official in the 1980s, Giuliani supported legalizing undocumented immigrants in the country even as he called for tighter border security.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at or (727) 893-8241.

[Last modified August 15, 2007, 00:00:06]

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