Monday, June 05, 2006

Katherine Harris' Senate run worries many in her party

Katherine Harris' Senate run worries many in her party
By Jill Lawrence, USA TODAY

FANNING SPRINGS, Fla. — Amid the sweaty crowds at Red Belly Day, bypassing the gospel singers, the funnel cakes and the belly-flop contest in the Suwannee River, the true believers find their way to Rep. Katherine Harris.

They offer up their loyalty, their votes, their view that her fellow Republicans should be giving her more support. "Aren't people sweet?" the Sarasota congresswoman asks as she dispenses hugs.

The woman who oversaw the 2000 presidential vote recount in Florida is running for the GOP Senate nomination — inspiring dread among many in her party. Whether they measure by fundraising, polls, disarray, ethics, strange behavior or potential to polarize, they see trouble.

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, seeking a second term, is polling twice as high as Harris. Gov. Jeb Bush, saying Harris could not win, staged a search for an alternative.

To no avail. The Sept. 5 primary will pit three little-known latecomers against the high-profile Harris.

The gravest threat to her candidacy, and to the Republican ticket if she tops it, is her link to corrupt defense contractor Mitchell Wade. Wade, former CEO of MZM Inc., has pleaded guilty to four criminal charges and said he tried to influence Harris.

Harris, 49, denies wrongdoing, but recent revelations that Wade gave her illegal contributions and expensive dinners led to the latest in a series of staff desertions. "Every time I turned over a rock, I found out something I didn't want to know," says Ed Rollins, a former Reagan aide who was Harris's chief adviser until he quit in March.

Pollster Ed Goeas says he left because "I kept giving her advice that she chose not to take." That includes his final words of wisdom, which were: "Get out."

As Florida secretary of State during the recount, Harris ran the process that gave George W. Bush his Florida win. Florida's electoral votes put Bush in the White House. She's a hero to many Republicans. "She took a lot of personal hits for doing the right thing," says John Friskey, chairman of the Dixie County Republican Party.

Harris says she did what she had to: "The only compliment I'll accept is, 'Thank you for following the law.' "

Democrats did not perceive Harris, who was also a Bush campaign official, as impartial. The memory is still raw. Justin Burgess of Gainesville, working the Red Belly crowd for a Democratic legislator, talked warmly with Harris about a mutual friend. Later he said he could never vote for her: "She's a great lady, but — the 2000 election. That's all I can say."

Among her other problems:

•Her late father's legacy. Harris, a citrus heiress, pledged on Fox News Channel in March that she'd put her father's legacy to her — a $10 million inheritance — "on the line" to win her race. In an interview last week, Harris said her father's legacy was "extraordinary work and integrity." As for money, "There's nothing that I have specifically from my father." Harris has given $3 million to her campaign and says she'll liquidate personal assets if necessary.

•Her appearance. Harris likes tight clothing. Jim Dornan, her former campaign manager, compares it to debutante attire. "It's not the type of dress a U.S. senator should or would wear," he says. She wore a tight peach sweater to Red Belly Day, a festival named for a local fish, and sucked on a lollipop. "Oh, no," aide Brian Brooks said as a photographer snapped pictures.

•A sketchy record. Harris gets credit for a program that helps low-income people make down payments on homes. But she is better known for odd controversies, such as saying authorities had foiled a plot to blow up the Carmel, Ind., power grid. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that Indiana and Washington, D.C., officials were "dumbfounded" by her statement.

•MZM. Wade was the central figure in the bribery scandal that put former California Republican congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham in jail. Common Cause has asked the Justice Department to look into whether Harris accepted bribes.

He gave Harris $32,000 in laundered contributions, offered to raise more and sought her help securing a project in her state, according to his guilty plea. Harris did pursue the project, but it was not funded.

Wade's plea document said Harris and her staff were not told Wade broke campaign law by reimbursing the MZM employees who contributed to her campaign. "We've done nothing wrong," Harris says.

Wade also treated Harris to at least two expensive dinners; one last year cost $2,800. Harris spokesman Chris Ingram says the bill was high because Wade took home expensive wine. He says Harris consumed little and gave $100 to a Jacksonville ministry to offset her share. It's unclear whether the donation puts Harris in compliance with the House's $50 gift cap.

Harris "has yet to explain her involvement in the largest congressional bribery scandal in history," says Chad Clanton, Nelson's campaign manager.

Harris scolds Nelson for opposing tax cuts and a federal ban on same-sex marriage. He doesn't "line up with Florida values," she tells WRGO radio in Crystal River.

Harris' GOP primary rivals are retired executive LeRoy Collins Jr., developer Peter Monroe and attorney William McBride. "We know we're going to win," Harris says. "We energize the base."

At Red Belly Day, not a lot of people seek her out. Those who do are devotees. "We believe in you," retired Coast Guard engineer Joel Dyer of Tampa tells her.

Harris answers questions about health care and immigration. She offers personal advice. "Be as beautiful inside as you are outside," she tells Jessica Storey, 9, winner of the Junior Miss Dixie contest. She calls herself "a thorn between the roses" as she poses with two teen beauty queens and ends up quoting John Adams: "A politician fears man. A statesman fears God."

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