WASHINGTON — 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.
"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.
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.
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.