WASHINGTON — The Republican Party's highest-ranking Latino official abruptly resigned Friday, marking the latest casualty in the GOP's bitter internal fight over immigration and dealing another setback to President Bush's years-long effort to court Latino voters.
The announcement by Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida that he was quitting as general chairman of the Republican National Committee came after he had expressed frustration over the tenor of the immigration debate within his party. Martinez will remain in his Senate post.
"Mel Martinez was a symbol of the party's outreach to Latinos, and that seems to be disappearing," said Lionel Sosa, a longtime Republican strategist and advisor to GOP presidents since Ronald Reagan. "It is not a good day for Latino Republicans, that's for sure."
The White House had engineered the ascent of the Cuban-born Martinez over the objections of many conservatives as part of an effort to repair the GOP's image among Latinos. That image suffered when Republican congressional leaders and conservative activists stymied administration-backed measures that would have created a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.
Some GOP strategists say the party's poor performance among Latino voters in 2006 helped ensure Democratic victories across the country. Now, some worry that Martinez's early exit from the RNC foreshadows more trouble in 2008.
Robert de Posada, president of the Republican-leaning Latino Coalition, said Martinez's departure is especially disheartening because it follows the resignation of another high-profile Latino in the GOP: former U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales.
"The message that it sends is Latinos are not welcome," De Posada said. "The radical conservative base has a temporary victory right now."
The RNC will be run by Mike Duncan, who shared the title of chairman and was responsible for the party's day-to-day operations.
A statement by Martinez released by the RNC did not mention the immigration issue or the courtship of Latino voters, topics that dominated Martinez's inauguration as chairman in January. Instead, the senator lauded himself for his efforts to "articulate the party's core values on vital national issues ranging from funding our troops to winning the war on terror to the promotion of fiscally conservative policies."
Bush issued a brief statement saying that Martinez "represented the best of the Republican Party and its core values."
But Martinez's frustration was well known. He had warned that a continuation of the GOP's 2006 tactics -- airing anti-illegal immigration television ads that many believed used ethnic stereotypes -- could doom the party's hope of competing for the country's fastest-growing voter bloc.
Those tactics, strategists said, erased many of the gains achieved by Bush and his chief political advisor, Karl Rove, who had been assiduously courting Latinos since Bush's first run for Texas governor in 1994.
In 2004, after an intense bilingual campaign, Bush won an estimated 40% of the Latino vote, helping ensure his reelection. Republicans won just 30% of the Latino vote in 2006. Next year's election could be decided by Latino-rich states such as Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.
"I believe that not to play this card right would be the destruction of our party," Martinez said in a spring interview with the Los Angeles Times. "Hispanics make up about 13% of our country, and by 2020 will be closer to 20%. It is a demographic trend that one cannot overlook."
The debate over courting Latino voters has split the GOP, with each side charging that the other would destroy the party's hopes of regaining a majority.
Critics of the GOP's Latino outreach have accused Bush, Rove and Martinez of compromising core conservative principles in their support for creating a path to amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants.
Opinion leaders such as talk show host Rush Limbaugh have charged that loosening immigration laws would only hurt Republicans, because new immigrants tend to register as Democrats.
The party base appears to be winning the fight.
The top Republican candidates for president, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, are promising to be tougher on illegal immigration.
Of the higher-profile GOP candidates, only Sen. John McCain of Arizona has accepted an invitation to participate in a debate sponsored by the Spanish-language television network Univision.