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Sen. Mel Martinez to Replace Mehlman as RNC Chairman

Sen. Mel Martinez, the first-term lawmaker who previously served in President Bush's Cabinet, will assume the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, GOP officials said Monday.

Martinez, 60, will replace current chairman Ken Mehlman, who will leave the post in January at the end of his two-year term, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid pre-empting a formal announcement.

Martinez will remain in the Senate. Mike Duncan, the RNC's current general counsel and a former party treasurer, will run the day-to-day operations at the party's Capitol Hill headquarters.

Martinez was tapped in 2001 as President Bush's secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He resigned in 2003 to run for the open Senate seat created when incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Graham decided not to seek another term. Martinez was elected with 49 percent of the vote — a slim margin that was credited to Bush's win in that state.

Martinez started slowly in the Senate where he was embarrassed by a one-page unsigned memo that originated in his office. Written by a Martinez aide and disavowed by Senate Republicans, the memo laid out the political benefits to getting involved in the fate of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman whose end-of-life battle became a rallying cry for conservatives.

"This is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue," said the memo. Its author resigned.

Martinez fled Cuba in 1962 as a 15-year-old. His parents remained on the communist island, hoping one day to join him. He eventually was placed with a foster family in Orlando, studied English and worked odd jobs that helped him buy his father a used car when his parents arrived in the United States four years later.

He put himself through college and earned a law degree, made millions as a trial lawyer and served as president of the Orlando Utilities Commission from 1994 to 1997. He was elected as the Orange County, Fla., chairman, serving from 1998 to 2001.