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11th Commandment in Fla.?

As the events honoring former President Ronald Reagan got under way Monday, the premise of the late president’s 11th commandment loomed large when National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) endorsed former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez (R) in the Florida Senate race.

In making the announcement Allen heaped effusive praise on Martinez and carefully sidestepped any criticism of the other five Republicans seeking the seat of retiring Sen. Bob Graham (D). He also emphasized that his backing of Martinez was a personal decision and that the NRSC will remain neutral in the Aug. 31 primary.

“I do not care to use this announcement and this endorsement for anything other than my sincere admiration and endorsement of Mel Martinez,” Allen told a meeting of reporters at the Ronald Reagan Republican Center, where the NRSC is headquartered. “I don’t care to denigrate. We’re all in mourning for President Reagan. I very much adhere to Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment of not speaking ill of any fellow Republican expressly or implicitly.”

Still, the NRSC head’s decision to take sides in the crowded primary was hardly embraced by Martinez’s two leading opponents in the Senate race — former Rep. Bill McCollum and state House Speaker Johnnie Byrd. Both campaigns used the endorsement to criticize Martinez for having stronger ties to Washington than to Sunshine State voters.

McCollum, who lost a 2000 Senate race, has led in almost all early polling and is considered Martinez’s leading opponent in the race for the GOP nomination.

Still, many GOP insiders privately questioned the former Congressman’s strength as the party’s general election nominee.

In a statement, McCollum campaign manager Matt Williams characterized the endorsement as a troublesome sign for Martinez.

“Senator George Allen’s decision to pick sides in a Republican primary clearly indicates the Martinez campaign is faltering and in desperate need of propping up from their only source of support — inside the Beltway,” Williams said.

McCollum has criticized Martinez, a former head of the Florida Association of Trial Lawyers and one-time Democrat, for his past ties to Democrats and his position on tort reform.

“The strange irony in this announcement is that Senator Allen, as the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is now supporting someone who gave money to the [Democratic] Senatorial Campaign Committee and many liberal Senate Democrats,” Williams added.

Martinez will attend a fundraiser tonight at the Northern Virginia home of an Allen supporter. Earlier this year Martinez kicked off his campaign with a Washington, D.C., fundraiser hosted by the entire Senate GOP leadership, minus Allen.

“I’m going to do what I can to help him make sure he has the resources and the support to get the nomination,” Allen said Monday.

McCollum, meanwhile, will also be in Washington today and will be feted at a fundraising event hosted by GOP Sens. Mike DeWine (Ohio), Larry Craig (Iowa), John Sununu (N.H.) and Don Nickles (Okla.).

Byrd campaign manager Wayne Garcia echoed Williams’ comments and used the Allen endorsement of Martinez to portray Byrd as a principled candidate, willing to ruffle feathers even within his own party.

“He is not a guy who goes along to get along,” Garcia said. “He is a person who stands by his principles.”

Garcia also took note of Martinez’s seemingly deep Washington-based support. The former HUD secretary stepped down from his cabinet position in December after being encouraged to run for Graham’s seat by White House officials and Senate leaders.

“This Senate race is not going to be decided inside the Beltway,” Garcia said. “It’s going to be decided here in Florida.”

Last week Byrd was endorsed by the Club for Growth, although the conservative anti-tax group is not expected to play as prominent a role in Florida as it did in the Pennsylvania Senate primary earlier this year.

While the NRSC has on occasion put its full weight behind candidates in contested primaries in the past, Allen made clear that the committee would not spend resources to help Martinez.

“I am not endorsing in my role as chairman of the committee,” he said. “As chairman of the committee I did recruit Mel to get into the race but this endorsement does not connote that we would be spending money on any candidates in the primary. Clearly I’m going to support whomever is the nominee.”

Allen’s only other endorsement in a contested primary this cycle occurred in Washington where he and the NRSC are backing Rep. George Nethercutt, who faces only nominal primary opposition. Nethercutt was recruited to challenge Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Still, Allen said he would reserve the right to endorse in other primaries. Colorado and Oklahoma are hosting open-seat Senate contests this cycle, and both feature candidates, like Martinez, who are perceived to have the support of the Republican establishment in Washington.

“Every state is different and every circumstance I will say is different,” Allen said.

Allen described Martinez, who came to the United States from Cuba as a youth, as “a modern day Horatio Alger story.”

He also praised Martinez as a “true common sense conservative” and someone who would advance President Bush’s agenda on issues such as homeland security, judicial nominations and tax cuts.

However, there appears to be little if any difference on those issues between Martinez and the other GOP candidates in the race. The biggest policy difference, McCollum’s campaign is quick to note, is on tort reform. Martinez said he supports capping medical liability damages at $500,000. The bill currently pending in the Senate, and supported by GOP leaders, would set the caps at $250,000.

“It completely hampers the Republican Party’s efforts to have a unified message on a key issue,” McCollum spokeswoman Shannon Gravitte said, referring to Allen’s endorsement.

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