President Bush's decision to back Cuban-born Sen. Mel Martinez to help lead the Republican Party — a move intended to appeal to Hispanic...

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WASHINGTON — President Bush’s decision to back Cuban-born Sen. Mel Martinez to help lead the Republican Party — a move intended to appeal to Hispanic voters who abandoned the GOP in the midterm election — drew sharp criticism Tuesday from many of the party’s core of conservatives, who disdain Martinez’s support for liberalized immigration laws.

White House strategists said the decision to back Martinez as general chairman of the Republican National Committee marked an acknowledgment that the party lost ground in last week’s midterm election, with the GOP share of the Hispanic vote dropping to 30 percent from more than 40 percent in 2004. Party leaders have said they need to build more support among Hispanics for the GOP to regain its dominance.

Martinez, of Florida, supported legislation to create a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for many people already in the country illegally. That plan, derided as an “amnesty” by its critics, was also favored by Bush and many Hispanics. But it created a firestorm of opposition this year among conservative Republicans and much of the House Republican leadership.

Criticism of Martinez came Tuesday from several conservatives, including Curly Haugland, a Republican National Committee member from North Dakota, who said the party was far too focused on courting minorities.

“We’re losing our base in droves, because they don’t get campaigned to,” he said, referring to GOP-leaning conservatives.

Randy Pullen, a Republican National Committee member from Arizona and an activist against illegal immigration, likened the Martinez selection to the episode in which Bush named his longtime friend and legal counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court — only to reverse himself after a furious conservative backlash.

“I’m afraid this is another Harriet Miers moment,” Pullen said.

Members of the Republican National Committee will meet in January to replace outgoing chairman Ken Mehlman, who will leave after a two-year term in which he saw an aggressive outreach effort to minorities hampered by the immigration debate and other issues.

Despite the unhappiness among some members over the selection of Martinez, he is expected to win election as general chairman, making him the party’s most visible spokesman in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election. He also will retain his Senate seat.

The GOP’s general counsel, Mike Duncan, is expected to become chairman and run day-to-day operations at the party’s Washington headquarters.

The selection, which became public Monday, made clear that Bush and chief political strategist Karl Rove believe the party’s future depends on striking a moderate image on immigration.

Martinez said Tuesday that his party struck the wrong tone on immigration during the election, a tone that he vowed to change.

“Border security only, enforcement only, harshness only, is not the message that I believe America wants to convey,” he said.