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Another new chair at the RNC?

October 2, 2007 | 11:58 am

Apparently the revolving door at the Republican National Committee is about to revolve again.

Florida's Sen. Mel Martinez, who took office as the public face of the GOP only on Jan. 19, he said as a favor to the president, is planning to step down as soon as the Republican nominee becomes clear, probably in early February, according to conservative columnist Robert Novak.

Trouble is, that's just when the newly anointed nominee could use the help of a well-run national committee in organizing a national campaign leading up to the late-summer convention in Minneapolis. Martinez, who doesn't face reelection until 2010, wants to focus on his legislative work and has declined to perform the usual media attack-dog role of a national party chairman. (Think Howard Dean, Ed Gillespie or Terry McAuliffe.)

President Bush, whose father's photo hangs in the RNC's carpeted hallways with all previous chairmen, has had six party leaders since he took office in 2001. He inherited Jim Nicholson, who was shipped off as an ambassador and then named Veterans Affairs secretary. Outspoken former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore was named chairman and relished the attack part, but had his own agenda and didn't coordinate well with the White House, specifically Karl Rove.

Next came former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, a close Bush confidant even before the 2000 campaign, who was Bush's first choice for attorney general before John Ashcroft but turned it down for family reasons. The unassuming Racicot aroused controversy by maintaining financial ties with his Washington law firm but worked closely with Rove through regular breakfasts and phone calls, and after 18 months was named general chairman of Bush's successful 2004 reelection campaign.

Rove aide Ken Mehlman, who made his political reputation in 1999 by organizing on short notice Bush's victory at the Ames straw poll, was named chairman and launched some energetic outreach programs to minorities. He was followed by Ed Gillespie, a lobbyist and advisor from the 2000 campaign who now serves as a counselor to the president.

The chairman's job varies by whether the party controls the White House, which then sets political policies and priorities, or not. But the duties always involve considerable travel, fundraising by cultivating major donors and media appearances, usually opposite the Democratic counterpart.

The Cuban-born Martinez's election was opposed by some conservative Republicans who didn't like his stand on immigration reform, which they regard as favoring amnesty. He came into office shortly after Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress, and his public role throughout 2007 has been largely drowned out by all the GOP candidates in the unusually early start to the 2008 presidential campaign.

Political associates in Florida describe the freshman senator as eager to get back to being a full-time legislator. With Martinez's early departure from a two-year term ending in January 2009, Bush may just leave Kentucky lawyer Mike Duncan as a caretaker running the committee's day-to-day operations.

If a Republican wins the White House in November 2008, he will want to name his own party chair. And if Republicans lose, the choice will be made in January 2009 by the full RNC membership, possibly after a spirited competition.

--Andrew Malcolm

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