Updated: 4:54 p.m.Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), a Cuban immigrant who won a close open-seat race in 2004, garnered warm praise from his GOP colleagues Friday after announcing he is leaving office early to return to his family and home life. “During his time in the U.S. Senate, Mel has demonstrated true leadership by passionately serving Floridians and our nation as a whole,— Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said of Martinez, who briefly served as the party’s general chairman.Martinez “put his own plans on hold to serve at the national level and has been a well-respected statesman ever since,— Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said. “While I know he’s eager to return to his family and beloved Florida, his positive influence on the Senate will be greatly missed and deeply appreciated.—GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said in an interview on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers— that is set to air Sunday: “He’s been a wonderful contributor to public life and we’ll miss him. He told me his one regret is he’s leaving at a time when he thinks the Republican Party is making a comeback.—Alexander also addressed the issue of replacing Martinez in the Senate, which falls to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), who earlier this year announced he would run for Martinez’s seat. Crist said Friday that he will not appoint himself to the seat, according to the Associate Press. “It only gets tricky if you try to appoint yourself, which would be an unwise thing to do,— Alexander, a former governor, said, predicting Crist will “handle this with a great deal of skill and common sense.—Immediate speculation among party insiders about whom Crist might appoint as a placeholder centered on former Gov. Bob Martinez, former Sen. Connie Mack, former Florida Secretary of State Jim Smith, Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer and former Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings.Martinez announced in November 2008 that he would not seek re-election to a second term in 2010. Crist has already won the backing of the party’s establishment, despite the fact that conservative former state Speaker Marco Rubio (R) is also running in the primary. Rep. Kendrick Meek is currently the only Democrat running for the open seat.“Senator Mel Martinez made history when he was elected to the U.S. Senate and I wish him only the best in his future endeavors,— Meek said in a statement Friday. Martinez served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President George W. Bush and, before that, was mayor of Orange County.Announcing his resignation in Orlando on Friday, Martinez cited a desire to return to family life.“My priorities have always been my faith, my family and my country and at this stage in my life, and after nearly twelve years of public service in Florida and Washington, it’s time I return to Florida and my family,— Martinez said.