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Mel Martinez to resign

Mel Martinez has repeatedly decried as a Tallassee rumor mill the speculation that he's going to step down before his term ends in 2010, but word is flying fast this morning from several quarters that he's going to announce an early departure today.

"It's a deeply personal decision that he will expand on later today. He decided it's time to move to 
another stage of his life," said one source familiar with the situation.

In an extraordinary turn of events, Gov. Charlie Crist, the leading Republican to replace Martinez in the U.S. Senate, will have the power to appoint someone to fill the remainder of Martinez's term. Sources say Crist is unlikely to appoint himself -- but is expected to make an announcement before the end of the August recess when the Senate returns to Washington. Some names already surfacing: former Sen. Connie Mack, former Gov. Bob Martinez, and former Secretary of State Jim Smith.

Democrats may see opportunity in an early exit: they're likely to suggest parallels with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who was widely assailed for resigning early. And they may use Martinez's retirement to suggest tension between Hispanics and the GOP. The first Cuban-American senator, Martinez was among only 9 Republican senators who voted for Sonia Sotomayor, and his support of immigration reform drew criticism from the Republican base. His election as chair of the Republican National Committee drew protests and he left the post after a short stint.