Sunday, November 16, 2008

Martinez May Have Rocky Road
Published: November 16, 2008

WASHINGTON - Republican Sen. Mel Martinez is waiting until January, at least officially, to say whether he's running for a second term.

But even before Martinez - or any Democrat - has announced he or she will be a candidate for his seat in 2010, political analysts are predicting Florida's junior senator is in for a tough battle if he runs.

"It's a toss-up race," said Jennifer Duffy, who studies Senate campaigns for the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter.

The 2008 elections are barely over, not counting a few late-season exceptions. Democrat Barack Obama is not even sworn in as the nation's 44th president, having taken Florida while on his way to winning the White House.

But attention is quickly shifting to 2010.

"Look for an announcement sometime in January," said Martinez spokesman Ken Lundberg on whether his boss will seek another six-year Senate term.

"What he has said is that he presumes he'll be running," Lundberg added.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, state House Minority Leader Dan Gelber and Rep. Ron Klein of Boca Raton are among Democrats whose names have been floated as potential candidates.

Duffy, who on Thursday released the Cook report's opening round of 2010 Senate race predictions, said the fight for Martinez's seat will be a key battleground.

And the GOP can ill-afford to lose more Senate seats.

This year, Democrats picked up at least six seats to increase their majority in the 100-member Senate to 57 (when combined with the votes of two independents).

In two years, Martinez's seat will be among 34 more up for grabs - 19 of them held by Republicans, 15 by Democrats.

Duffy is not alone in predicting Martinez - the nation's first Cuban-American senator and a former secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President George W. Bush - will face a tough re-election battle.

A North Carolina polling firm last week pointed to what it says are job approval ratings of 23 percent to 24 percent, calling Martinez "probably the most endangered incumbent in the country in 2010."

State Republicans have attacked those findings.

Other polls, including those done by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which does surveys for The Tampa Tribune and other news agencies, have shown numbers that were substantially higher, though still not great-generally 35 percent to 45 percent. And one October poll by Hamilton Campaigns, a Democratic-oriented firm, gave Martinez 51 percent positive job ratings.

Martinez's numbers dipped when he took a high-profile stance in 2007 as one of about 10 senators who tried to craft a bipartisan compromise that could bring citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants. But the fragile deal upset conservatives in his party who labeled it "amnesty," and it did not muster enough support.

Martinez resigned in October 2007 as chairman of the Republican National Committee after only 10 months.

Duffy said Obama's winning Florida has only bolstered her view that Martinez is vulnerable.

Martinez's "other problems are that he is not especially well-defined for voters. And, because he was a good sport and agreed to serve as the chairman of the Republican National Committee, he's neglected his fundraising somewhat," she said.

Martinez has less than $1.3 million in his campaign fund now.

"Florida is a very big, very expensive swing state now, and this is going to be a $25 million-plus race," Duffy said.

Reporter Billy House can be reached at (202) 662-7673.

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