I actually opposed trial lawyers before I supported them

Published September 1, 2004 2:26PM (EDT)

From the stage of the Republican National Convention Tuesday night, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist repeated a line that George W. Bush uses frequently on the campaign trail: "Let's be clear," he said. "You can no longer be both pro-patient and pro-trial lawyer."

It's a slam at John Kerry for selecting John Edwards as his running mate. But if the premise is correct, then Republicans in Florida -- and in New York -- certainly have some explaining to do now. The White House's handpicked candidate in the race to succeed retiring Florida Sen. Bob Graham won the Republican primary Tuesday night. He's Mel Martinez, former secretary of housing and urban development -- and a millionaire trial lawyer.

Martinez' primary opponents made an issue of his trial-lawyer past, saying it would cause problems for Bush in Florida, where the Bush-Cheney campaign would surely like to use Edwards' legal experience as a way to scare seniors about healthcare costs in a Kerry-Edwards administration. They said Martinez' opposition to some tort reform legislation showed that he was "out of step" with both the Bush administration and the Republican platform adopted this week in New York. Martinez, who worked for 25 years as a trial lawyer and once led the trial lawyer bar in Florida, tried to distance himself from his work as a trial lawyer by pointing to support he received from the business community.

But Martinez' former career isn't the only problem for Republicans. While GOP leaders in New York struggle to repress their inner Gary Bauers, Martinez dove into the antigay gutter in the final days of his campaign. According to the Miami Herald, the Martinez campaign ran TV ads and sent out mailers attacking one of his Republican opponents, Rep. Bill McCollum, as "'anti-family' and a darling of the 'radical homosexual lobby'" because he supported bipartisan legislation against hate crimes and is in favor of embryonic stem cell research.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called on Martinez to pull the commercial, which he did, although he didn't disavow the attacks: In a move right out of the Bush-Rove playbook, Martinez said he wouldn't approve of the kind of language used in the attacks, even though the attacks were made by his own campaign. The St. Petersburg Times withdrew its endorsement of Martinez, saying that the candidate had launched "hateful and dishonest attacks" and that the paper did not want to be associated with his "bigotry."

Bush apparently shares no such hesitation. Martinez is scheduled to speak at the Republican National Convention Thursday night, shortly before the president himself takes the stage.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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