Sen. Mel Martinez, President Bush’s choice to become chairman of the Republican National Committee, said his goal will be to undo the election damage done by the border-enforcement-first message of most Republicans — which he called “harshness only.”
Mr. Martinez’s nomination — which must be approved by the RNC at its January meeting — is Mr. Bush’s first major political step since last week’s elections, and it is already creating division among rank-and-file Republicans, who say it puts the party on the wrong side of the immigration issue.
“I would say it’s another Harriet Miers moment,” said Randy Pullen, an RNC committee member from Arizona, referring to the doomed pick for the Supreme Court.
Mr. Bush announced the nomination in the Oval Office, saying Mr. Martinez would keep his Florida Senate seat and serve as honorary chairman, or the public face of the party. Mr. Bush also nominated Mike Duncan, the RNC’s general counsel, as chairman responsible for day-to-day operations, and asked Jo Ann Davidson to remain co-chairman.
Chairman Ken Mehlman is not seeking to remain in office.
Speaking to reporters after the Oval Office announcement, Mr. Martinez said he was “not going to do a post-mortem on the election here today.” Moments later, though, he did a post-mortem on immigration, saying he saw a clear message on that issue.
“I think we have to understand that the election did speak to one issue, and that was that — it’s not about bashing people, it’s about presenting a hopeful face,” said Mr. Martinez, who won his seat in 2004.
He was one of the authors of the Senate compromise that would have allowed most illegal aliens to remain in the United States and pay small fines in return for a path to citizenship.
“Border security only, enforcement only, harshness only is not the message that I believe America wants to convey,” Mr. Martinez said.
His proposal passed the Senate, though a majority of Republicans voted against it. The House, however, passed an enforcement-first strategy. Even the RNC voted unanimously in August to adopt a resolution calling for border and interior enforcement, and Mr. Pullen said Mr. Martinez as chairman would run contrary to that message.
Some RNC members had pleaded for Mr. Bush to nominate Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a prominent black Republican who in his losing Senate campaign this year argued against amnesty for illegal aliens.
Rejecting Mr. Steele raised hackles among some RNC members, who traditionally rubber-stamp a sitting president’s choice for chairman. Members wondered whether the choice of Mr. Martinez was a signal of Mr. Bush’s desire to focus more on burnishing his presidential legacy, rather than on rebuilding a winning party for 2008.
“I don’t know whether this is Harriet Miers and cronyism all over again, since I don’t know that much about Martinez and his relationship with Bush and Rove,” said Texas RNC member Bill Crocker, referring to the White House adviser.
“But I wish they wouldn’t try to control this thing, the way this White House micromanages everything. We’d be better off with an independent voice to support the president and work for the good of the party.”
Dr. Buddy Witherspoon, an RNC member from Columbia, S.C., said a black conservative such as Mr. Steele would have been an “excellent choice.” But Dr. Witherspoon, who is white, worried just how much Mr. Steele, Mr. Martinez or anyone whom “Karl Rove chooses” will be able to speak for the future of the Republican Party.
As Mr. Bush pushes the RNC in his direction on immigration, House Republicans move the other way, with Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, a contender for the House minority leader’s post, saying yesterday that he will oppose Mr. Bush’s bill.
“What is coming at us now is going to be a massive amnesty bill that will likely be propounded not only by Democrats in the House and Senate, but frankly also by the White House,” he said in an interview with radio host Laura Ingraham.
Charles Hurt contributed to this article.