|JOE CIARDIELLO FOR USN&WR|
Sports has often been the way for Mel Martinez, the Florida senator and new Republican Party general chairman, to prove he's different and a team player. As a kid in communist Cuba, for example, he'd show his rebel side by wearing a Catholic scapular around his neck during basketball and baseball games just to irk the authorities. "When you live in a totalitarian society, those are the little victories," he tells us. The result: His parents shipped him alone to Florida before he went too far. There, he used sports to fit in. "Hitting a line drive or trading elbows under a basket," he says, "makes you like everyone else."
Now, with the congressional gop in the minority, Martinez is using those experiences to chart a comeback. "We need to be on the same team," he says, joking that he should get some team jerseys for the Republicans. To show the gop is different, he says he wants to "improve our brand." That means going back to the basics of Reaganism "while understanding that times change." Next: Build consensus on key issues like immigration, spending, and the war. "I hope," he says, "that I will be able to bring some cohesion to our message so that we speak with one voice." And being Cuban, he adds, is a plus: He feels he represents "the new American spirit" and diversity. "You know the most common name in baseball is not Smith, not Jones," he says. "It's Martinez."