Friday, May 12, 2006

Path Clear for Katherine Harris in Senate Bid (yes, that Katherine Harris!); Republicans Unable to Recruit an Alternative Candidate
Path Clear for Harris in Senate Bid
Republicans Unable to Recruit an Alternative Candidate
By Chris Cillizza
Special to The Washington Post

The White House and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush were again unable to recruit an alternative candidate to Rep. Katherine Harris in the state's U.S. Senate race yesterday as Florida's top legislative leader announced that he will not run. The decision virtually ensures that the controversial congresswoman will be the Republican nominee against Sen. Bill Nelson (D).

Asked whether Harris could win the seat, Florida GOP communications director Jeff Sadosky offered something less than a ringing endorsement. "We'll have to wait and see what happens between now and Friday," he said. Friday is Florida's last day for candidates to file for federal office.

Harris insisted that she has "turned it around" and that going forward she will turn the focus onto Nelson, who is seeking a second term, and away from herself. "This isn't about me," she said.

Nonetheless, the pessimism over Harris's chances in a state that had been seen as one of the Republicans' best opportunities to gain a U.S. Senate seat shows the difficulty posed by the national political environment, which favors Democrats.

Faced with polls showing the president's approval ratings south of 50 percent for much of the past year, the White House -- in tandem with the National Republican Senatorial Committee -- has struggled to recruit their preferred candidates in North Dakota, West Virginia and now Florida, all three of which were carried by President Bush in 2004.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) said GOP candidates are backing away from races because they "are loath to spend the next six months defending the status quo."

The no-go decision yesterday by Florida House Speaker Allan G. Bense ends a year-long recruitment drive to find a Harris alternative that included overtures to former congressman Joe Scarborough, now a television commentator, and U.S. Rep. Mark Foley -- among others. Bense was encouraged to run over the summer but then, as now, declined. NRSC spokeswoman Brian Nick said Sen. Elizabeth Dole (N.C.), committee chairman, had not spoken to Bense in months about the race.

Even so, in recent days there appeared to be optimism about a Bense candidacy as evidenced by comments by White House political director Sara M. Taylor, who praised the state legislator as a "class act" and a "very strong leader," the first time the White House had spoken publicly in favor of any candidate in the Senate race.

But yesterday, Bense announced that he was leaving politics. Without Bense, state and national GOP leaders face the difficult task of lining up behind Harris and arguing that she can defeat Nelson after spending much of the past several months trying to find someone -- anyone -- to challenge her in the September primary.

The scale of that challenge is summed up in comments made earlier this week by the state's GOP governor. "I just don't believe she can win," Jeb Bush told reporters Monday in a frank assessment of the party's now-likely nominee.

Harris said she spoke "extensively" to the governor on Tuesday about the race and is "confident that whomever is in the general election against Bill Nelson that they will have the support of Republicans across the state."

From the start, Harris's campaign has been greeted with skepticism by party leaders in Washington and Florida, in large part because of the divisive role she played as secretary of state during the 2000 presidential recount in Florida. Those worries were exacerbated by the circuslike atmosphere that quickly engulfed the campaign as top aides abandoned the effort.

Harris struggled to raise the millions she would need to be competitive with Nelson, while news stories emerged linking her to a defense contractor convicted of bribing then-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.). Polling showed Harris trailing Nelson by double digits.

Seeking to quash rumors that she would drop out, Harris made an unusual appearance on Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes" program in March in which she said she would risk the estate and legacy of her recently deceased father by donating $10 million to the campaign.

"I'm going to put everything on the line. Everything. Not just my career and my future but my father's name," she said at the time.