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Carl Hiaasen
From political puppy to campaign attack dog

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The Jekyll-to-Hyde transformation of U.S. Senate candidate Mel Martinez is now complete.

A once-progressive Republican who counted leaders of both parties among his admirers, Martinez has morphed into a nasty right-wing drooler. His conversion has been swift and appalling.

It began with the GOP primary campaign, in which Martinez blasted former Rep. Bill McCollum as “anti-family” for supporting advanced stem-cell research.

Anti-family? That’s the equivalent of flipping the middle finger at everyone who has a relative afflicted with Alzheimer’s and who dares to hope for a cure.

But Martinez wasn’t done yet. He offended even more people by running commercials that attacked McCollum for supporting hate-crime laws. Martinez called him “the new darling of homosexual extremists.”

The absurdity was obvious to anyone who had followed McCollum’s ultra-conservative career.

More disturbing was Martinez’s unabashed disdain for hate-crime legislation, which protects not only homosexuals but Jews, Muslims, Catholics, African-Americans, Asian-Americans – all of us, in fact.

One would have thought that Martinez, as an immigrant himself, would display at least a shred of sensitivity on an issue so basic to human decency.

His sneering new stance was alarming to some who had known him as a trial lawyer, Orange County chairman and, most recently, the U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

But to understand why Martinez suddenly grew fangs, you have to remember how he came to run for the Senate: He got drafted by the White House.

He had two attractive attributes for a statewide race in Florida: No. 1, he was Hispanic. No. 2, he was not Katherine Harris.

To the chagrin of President Bush’s re-election team, Harris was contemplating a run for Sen. Bob Graham’s soon-to-be-vacated seat. Her presence in the race would have revived the toxic debate over the nonrecount in 2000 – the last thing that the Republicans wanted.

As an alternative, Martinez was deemed more electable than McCollum, who’d already lost one bruising Senate bid.

No sooner had Martinez accepted the Bush camp’s invitation than he veered hard to the right, declaring he was “no centrist.” Reading dutifully from the party script, he denounced “liberal” judges, gun control, abortion rights, high taxes and, yes, stem-cell research.

But ever since winning the primary – and alienating many moderate Republicans – Martinez has been scrambling to reclaim his centrist image and assure voters that he really isn’t a bilious, bug-eyed zealot.

Unfortunately, he keeps acting like one.

Martinez’s latest attack on Democrat Betty Castor is faithful to this year’s core GOP election strategy, which is to monger as much fear of terrorism as possible.

A Martinez commercial slams Castor for failing to provide “strong leadership” in dealing with controversial pro-Palestinian professor Sami al-Arian while she was president of the University of South Florida.

Al-Arian wasn’t indicted until 2003, long after Castor had left USF. Al-Arian still hasn’t gone to trial.

But Martinez would have us believe that Castor, as a university president, should have preempted the FBI investigation and fired al-Arian, even though the man hadn’t been arrested for anything.

Here’s the kicker. Guess who posed for a photo with al-Arian during a campaign stop in Plant City?

George W. Bush, president-to-be.

It happened in 2000 – four years after Castor had taken the professor out of the classroom and six years after his corrosive views on Israel had first been publicized.

There’s more. In June 2001, al-Arian and other well-known Arabs and Muslims visited the White House to schmooze with none other than Karl Rove, Bush’s top advisor.

How embarrassing, especially now that al-Arian has been indicted on terrorism-related charges.

Since Martinez doesn’t want to embarrass the guys who talked him into running for the Senate, he generously omitted the stuff about Bush and Rove from the TV spots featuring al-Arian.

When questioned, Martinez acted as if it were no big deal, as if the White House routinely invites future terrorism defendants to drop by for tea.

The old Mel Martinez wouldn’t be slinging such rubbish, but it’s too late to clean up his act. Dr. Jekyll has obviously surrendered to Mr. Hyde.

Or at least to Mr. Rove.

Carl Hiaasen can be reached by e-mail at
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