GOP's Mel Martinez to step down, letting Crist make pick

TALLAHASSEE — Sen. Mel Martinez told friends and supporters Friday in an e-mail that he'll step down from the Senate as soon as a replacement is appointed to fill out his term.

``My priorities have always been my faith, my family and my country and at this stage in my life, and after nearly twelve years of public service in Florida and Washington, it's time I return to Florida and my family,'' said Martinez, who had already ruled out a run for re-election in 2010.

In an extraordinary turn of events, Gov. Charlie Crist, the leading Republican to replace Martinez in the U.S. Senate, will have the power to appoint someone to fill the remainder of Martinez's term.

Crist has denied that he'd appoint himself. He's expected to make an announcement on a fill-in before the end of the August recess when the Senate returns to Washington. Some names already surfacing: former Sen. Connie Mack, former Gov. Bob Martinez and former Secretary of State Jim Smith.

Some speculate that Crist might step down as governor, thereby elevating Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, who could then appoint Crist to the Senate.

Crist will hold an already scheduled press conference at 2:30 p.m. Martinez will be available for a 3 p.m. press conference.

Martinez had repeatedly dismissed suggestions that he'd exit early as rumors. When asked about it July 28, Crist downplayed it.

``Anything's possible. I don't think that's something [Martinez] really is considering,'' said Crist, a friend and early supporter of Martinez.

Crist also dismissed questions about Mack and Smith as potential place holders for the Senate seat he is seeking..

``Those are both great Floridians, there's no doubt about that,'' Crist said. ``But that might be putting the cart before the horse at this time.''

When asked at the time why he was so certain that Martinez would stay in office, Crist said, ``I just have a sense that he will. I could be wrong. But time will tell.''

Martinez won office in 2004, swept in on the coattails of President George W. Bush's reelection and a bare-knuckle campaign style that framed Republican rival Bill McCollum as a ``darling of the radical homosexual lobby'' and Democrat Betty Castor as soft on terrorism.

His tenure in office was marked by several mishaps: On the floor of the Senate he passed along a memo suggesting the political benefits of the plight of Terri Schiavo, a comatose woman who died after a legal and political battle in Tallahassee and Washington.

Martinez was also fined $99,000 for campaign-finance law violations, was head of the national Republican Party when it lost its footing and became the face of President Bush's failed immigration reform plan.

Democrats may use Martinez's early exit to suggest tension between Hispanics and the GOP. The first Cuban-American senator, Martinez was among only nine Republican senators to vote Thursday for Sonia Sotomayor, President Barack Obama's choice for Supreme Court Justice.

Martinez championed immigration reform and his appointment as chair of the Republican National Committee drew protests from GOP'ers who opposed his stance on immigration. He left that post after a short stint.