Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Katherine Harris Presses On

The New York Times
Senate Contender in Florida Presses On

VENICE, Fla. — Undaunted by a run of horrific poll numbers, staff turmoil and public doubts from leaders of her party, Representative Katherine Harris is thinking confidently beyond November.

Once Ms. Harris wins her race for a Senate seat, she says, she plans to travel everywhere with a guide dog.

"Before I hire anyone to work for me in the Senate, I tell them I'm going to do this," said Ms. Harris, the former Florida secretary of state best — or worst — remembered for her role in the state's election recount of 2000.

Ms. Harris explains that she intends to participate in a program that provides guide dogs for volunteers to train. While cynics may assign unflattering symbolism to a politician who is not blind being led around the Capitol by a guide dog, Ms. Harris is undeterred — by this or by the perception that her role in 2000 makes her too divisive to lure the swing voters necessary to defeat the incumbent Democrat, Bill Nelson.

In her insistence on running, Ms. Harris has become something of a pariah among many of the people whose power she indirectly helped ensure five and a half years ago, as overseer of the recount that sealed George W. Bush's victory.

Top White House officials, Republican operatives and Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida have urged her not to run. When Ms. Harris ignored those entreaties, a Who's Who of national Republicans begged a Who's Who of Florida Republicans to oppose her in the primary, to no avail.

Her campaign has been marked by aides leaving en masse, disclosures of her ties to a contractor caught up in a lobbying scandal and the fund-raising handicaps inherent to any enterprise perceived as a lost cause or, worse, a joke.

Ed Rollins, one of Ms. Harris's many former campaign consultants, claimed she had told him that God wanted her to stay in the race. (Ms. Harris denies making the statement.)

She promised to finance her campaign with $10 million of her own money. Popular wisdom says that will not matter. Mr. Nelson led Ms. Harris by more than 30 points in recent polls.

"She has absolutely no chance of winning," said former Representative Joe Scarborough, a Pensacola Republican who was courted strongly by the National Republican Senatorial Committee to oppose Ms. Harris but declined. Mr. Scarborough, the host of "Scarborough Country" on MSNBC, said Ms. Harris "seems to be detached from reality these days."

Because of her role in the 2000 recount, Ms. Harris still enjoys devotion from many Florida Republicans, enough to make her the likely winner over three little-known opponents for her party's nomination. Her supporters applaud avidly at Republican events and cannot understand her sudden unpopularity among party leaders.

"She acted exactly the way the Republicans wanted her to act," said Stanley Tate, a Miami businessman who serves as her campaign's finance chairman. Mr. Tate said he was "completely confused" by the party establishment's snubbing of Ms. Harris. He tells of a recent Republican dinner in Miami where Ms. Harris received a standing ovation from the crowd yet was not acknowledged in a speech by Governor Bush.

On Memorial Day, Ms. Harris rode in a parade and visited two Veterans of Foreign Wars halls and one American Legion post, and was not audibly jeered or heckled by anyone, a fact that surprises even her, "based on the press I get."

Between stops, Ms. Harris portrays herself as something of a populist under siege from "Washington Republicans" and a liberal news media. "I don't have the Beltway mentality," she said. "And I never go along to get along. So I think it's a little threatening to those in power."

She said that given the difficult environment for incumbent Republicans in November, it could be an asset to be perceived as a nonfavorite of the party establishment.

"O.K., so President Bush does not support her," said Representative John L. Mica, a Florida Republican who is close to Ms. Harris. "President Bush is at 30 percent." Mr. Mica added that Ms. Harris was previously criticized for being "a tool of the Bushes," which should not be a problem anymore.

Even so, the role of anti-establishment figure is unusual for Ms. Harris, the product of a well-to-do Central Florida family and a granddaughter of a cattle and citrus baron. She became a well-known socialite in the Sarasota area and has long been active in the state's Republican Party. She is married to a Swedish businessman, Anders Ebbeson, and they have listed assets of as much as $37 million.

In Congress, Ms. Harris has been a reliable ally of the Bush administration on issues like tax cuts, Iraq and opposition to same-sex marriage. She has done little in her three-and-a-half-year tenure to win notice beyond her district — one exception being a speech in which she spoke of a foiled terrorist plot against the city of Carmel, Ind. (Federal officials said the plot never existed; Ms. Harris later said she had heard of it secondhand.)

The belief among top Republicans was that Ms. Harris's presence in 2006 would galvanize Democrats still eager for revenge after 2000.

"The campaign can't be about her," Governor Bush told reporters last month. "I gave her that exact advice. Since then, it's gotten worse."

Like most politicians who are behind in polls, Ms. Harris says she does not pay attention to them. But she cited her own "internal polls," which she said showed that she could get 53 percent of the vote "if my base turns out."

She says she has moved on from a string of fiascoes early this year, including the disclosure that a military contractor who has pleaded guilty to bribery in the corruption case involving former Representative Randy Cunningham has also admitted to making $32,000 in illegal donations to Ms. Harris's campaign. She has said she had no idea the contributions were illegal; she donated the money to charity.

She has also seen a drain of top aides, campaign managers and consultants, many complaining on the way out the door about her management style and unwillingness to follow their advice (including not to run).

Ms. Harris says voters are indifferent to stories about staff turnover. What matters, she said, is "my total commitment to Floridians" and "getting the word out about how liberal Bill Nelson is."

In interviews, Ms. Harris projects a somewhat frenetic personality, speaking in rapid-fire cadences, fussing incessantly with her hair and barraging aides with questions and road directions ("We have a detour to Starbucks on the way. ... Quickest way to Venice is down Fruitville"). Sometimes she will burst forth midsentence upon noticing something out the window ("Hey, there's one of my bumper stickers!").

She attributes much of how she is viewed to the "silliness" of the media. This dates from 2000, when Ms. Harris's perceived overapplication of makeup became a recurring punch line.

"They had trucks in Florida bringing the ballots to Tallahassee," Jay Leno said on "The Tonight Show." "In fact, it's the same trucks they used to bring the makeup to Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris."

Ms. Harris is adamant in her claim that news organizations have doctored photographs to exaggerate the amount of makeup she wears. "I haven't worn blue makeup since seventh grade," she said, referring to photographs she said she had seen of herself on the Internet.

She is especially animated when the topic turns to animals, including the guide dog she plans to train starting in November. She will care for the dog for 18 months, spending nearly all her waking hours with it. "You can't let them sleep in bed with you," Ms. Harris said. "Which is going to be harder on me than the dog."

When a supporter in a Venice veterans hall said he once witnessed Ms. Harris leave her vehicle to escort a turtle across a highway, she became gravely serious.

"All of my life I have stopped for turtles," she said firmly, even defensively, as if someone had challenged her commitment to turtle safety.

As Ms. Harris hugged and hand-shaked her way toward the hall exit, the song "Y.M.C.A." came on. The mostly empty dance floor filled with aging veterans and their wives, one of whom spotted Ms. Harris and summoned her.

She obliged. And then commenced another unforgettable moment, Katherine Harris, arms over her head, dancing to "Y.M.C.A."