U.S. Senate candidate Mel Martinez may get a boost if the Miami-Dade mayoral race increases turnout in the August primary, particularly among Hispanic Republicans.
BY LESLEY CLARK
One of the biggest winners of the Miami-Dade County mayoral race may be a candidate not even in the contest.
Former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, running in a crowded Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat, stands to benefit on Aug. 31 from a high turnout generated by a highly competitive mayoral race that same day.
Five high-profile Hispanic candidates are expected to spend close to $4 million vying for the open mayoral seat, luring to the polls voters likely to be mostly Republican and primarily Cuban American -- a critical voting bloc in the wide-open Senate primary.
''It's advantage Martinez,'' said Washington pollster Rob Schroth, who surveyed South Florida Hispanics for WLTV-Univisión 23 and found that Martinez, a Cuban American, would easily defeat all his rivals among Hispanic voters. ``The sheer amount of dollars these [mayoral] candidates will spend will boost turnout, and in a conservative Republican primary, that helps Martinez.''
The major mayoral candidates: former Police Director Carlos Alvarez, businessman Jose Cancela, former County Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, County Commissioner Jimmy Morales and School Board member Marta Perez.
Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in a three-way primary, may also get a boost from the turnout. But although the mayoral race is nonpartisan, the majority of voters in Miami-Dade primary elections tend to be Republican, two-thirds of them Cuban American.
The first race those Republicans will spot on the touch-screen ballot: the GOP field hoping to succeed retiring U.S. Senator Bob Graham. Among the names will be Cuban-born Martinez, a former member of President Bush's Cabinet.
''Mel's going to get 50 to 60 percent of the Cuban vote without lifting a finger,'' said Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican and former Hispanic outreach director for the Republican Party of Florida. ``The question is, can the others stop him from getting 70 or 75 percent?''
Though most of the rival camps were unaware of the Miami-Dade election, the effort to blunt Martinez's momentum -- and establish conservative Cuban credentials -- is already evident among nearly all of the Republican Senate candidates.
That's particularly true for former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, a Longwood Republican who ran for the Senate in 2000 and lost but who carries a name-recognition lead over Martinez and his other rivals in statewide polls.
McCollum has hit Martinez hard, trying to portray the one-time president of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers as a ''liberal trial lawyer'' at odds with President Bush.
McCollum has assiduously courted the Cuban-American vote, earning the endorsement of such Miami Republicans as U.S. Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart, pressing the flesh at exile dinners, and just last month, appearing in Miami to propose that all Cubans who attempt to flee the communist island be given a chance to enter the United States. He also suggested that undercover agents disguised as tourists be sent to Cuba to undermine Cuban President Fidel Castro.
''Bill McCollum is someone the community knows as being totally on our side in terms of a good record in support of Cuban freedom,'' said Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who suggested any advantage for Martinez on Aug. 31 would be marginal.
''I will grant the fact that Mel will do very well and do better than any candidate in the Cuban community,'' Diaz-Balart said, ``but a significant percentage will vote for McCollum.''
McCollum's campaign argues that even if Martinez takes most of the Miami-Dade vote, the county represents just 16 percent of the total Republican electorate, giving him an edge but not a free ticket to the nomination. Other areas, like Tampa and Fort Myers, also are rich veins of Republican voters, McCollum's campaign noted.
SUPPORT FOR OTHERS
Though the other candidates poll in the single digits, they've been active in Miami.
Rivera's candidate, House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, has courted the Cuban-American vote, campaigning at Versailles restaurant in Little Havana in the requisite white guayabera. Byrd has secured endorsements from most Cuban-American legislators in the Florida House, and Rivera said they will work for him, promoting his work as speaker.
''I think Johnnie Byrd's record on taxes is a record that will be embraced by Cuban-American voters,'' Rivera said. ``And I think the community is more sophisticated than viewing everything through an ethnic prism.''
Sen. Daniel Webster, too, has backers in the Cuban community. Webster, a former House speaker, was endorsed by Miami senators Rudy Garcia and Alex Diaz de la Portilla -- his elder brother, Miguel, a former Miami-Dade County commissioner, lost a challenge to Penelas in 2000 but is now one of the leading candidates for mayor and is expected to launch an aggressive campaign.
Larry Klayman, the former director of Judicial Watch, which sued Castro over the 1996 shoot-down of two U.S. civilian planes by Cuban fighter jets, said strategists shouldn't count him out.
Klayman, who calls himself an ''honorary Cuban'' for his legal representation of exiles, has called for the armed invasion of Cuba and insists he'll peel voters from Martinez.
Martinez's campaign spokeswoman downplays the angle, saying ``anything that gets voters to the polls will benefit Martinez.''
STRENGTH IN ROOTS
But as the candidate waded into a crowd at a Little Havana senior center earlier this year, the appeal to some voters was palpable. Elderly Cuban women made a beeline for Martinez, grabbing his hand and posing for pictures after his introduction by U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican who split with her colleagues to back Martinez.
''I've met people here from my hometown back in Cuba,'' said Martinez, who fled Cuba at 15, resettled with a foster family in Orlando and uses his experience as a child of the ''Pedro Pan'' program to tout himself as living the American dream.
Martinez's roots have already created a tight spot for the Cuban-American politicians who are backing the non-Cuban candidates. On Spanish-language radio, callers have assailed them for not supporting the man who could become the first Cuban-born U.S. senator.
Rivera said he reminds critics that Martinez, prodded into the race by a White House seeking a Republican heavyweight, didn't get in until Graham had decided not to run for reelection. By then, Rivera said, promises had been made.
''When we endorsed Johnnie Byrd, Mel Martinez had said he wasn't going to run,'' Rivera said. ``I can't go back on my word. What would my endorsement be worth if I broke my word?''