President Bush praised Housing and Urban Development (search) Secretary Mel Martinez (search) Thursday as Martinez prepared to leave the Cabinet for a U.S. Senate bid in Florida.

"Today is Mel Martinez's, the fine secretary of HUD, last meeting," Bush said at a gathering of the Cabinet Thursday morning. It was Martinez's last Cabinet meeting; his resignation, announced Tuesday, takes effect on Friday at noon.

"Mel has served our country with class and distinction," Bush said. "I'm proud, Mel, to have had you on this team. Good job."

Bush's carefully chosen words made no reference to Martinez's plans to run for Senate, reflecting a delicate political situation there. However brief, the favorable comments about Martinez -- before cameras -- represented presidential praise that none of Martinez's rivals in the Republican primary will be able to match.

The White House is reluctant to openly endorse a candidate in the crowded Republican field vying for the nomination to replace Democratic Sen. Bob Graham (search), who is retiring after this term. Bush generally prefers to give the appearance that he is leaving such selection decisions to GOP voters.

But behind the scenes, the White House repeatedly urged Martinez to run, hoping his candidacy would shove aside Katherine Harris (search), a symbol of the 2000 recount, who is weighing her own run.

The administration fears her candidacy would drive up turnout by angry Democrats, hurting Bush's own re-election prospects in the vital state of Florida, where his brother, Jeb, is governor.