Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Analysis: Harris stumbles to the finish line

Analysis: Harris stumbles to the finish line
By Larry Wheeler, Gannett News Service

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Unconventional is one way to describe the troubled Senate campaign of Republican Katherine Harris.

Florida editorial page writers went with "bizarre" and "freak show."

Harris' bid to unseat Bill Nelson, a moderate Democrat, is one of the more entertaining political sideshows of the midterm election, even if it isn't a factor in the high-stakes struggle for control of Congress.

Harris was Florida's top election official six years ago when she gained national attention by certifying George W. Bush the winner in the state's contested presidential election.

She was hailed by GOP voters, assailed by Democrats and savaged by late night TV comics and Internet bloggers.

Now a two-term congresswoman representing Sarasota, Fla., Harris is stumbling toward the finish line of a Senate campaign marred by controversy and indifference from her own party.

"Not only doesn't she have any crossover appeal to Democrats and independents, she's having a hard time keeping Republicans on the reservation," said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc.

Republican Party leaders — including Gov. Jeb Bush — initially opposed Harris' candidacy because she's such a polarizing figure.

Her campaign has suffered multiple staff defections, including that of a top GOP strategist, Ed Rollins, who suggested in interviews that Harris has mental health issues.

The Justice Department launched an investigation into Harris' dealings with a lobbyist who pleaded guilty in a congressional corruption probe.

In August, Harris tried to explain paltry turnout at a major campaign rally by claiming a tree had fallen on an airplane hangar, forcing a last-minute change of venue. Orlando Executive Airport officials said no such incident occurred. Harris ultimately blamed a staffer for providing inaccurate information.

Finally, Harris angered Jews and other people of faith when she told an evangelical magazine that voters were "legislating sin" if they didn't elect Christians to public office.

Through it all, Harris, 49, has maintained a seemingly inexplicable optimism.

"The grass roots have been with us, and we think, come Nov. 7, God willing, we'll be the next senator," Harris said, using the royal "we," after speaking to the Florida Farm Bureau.

That optimism is almost certainly misplaced. Nelson enjoyed a 26 percentage-point advantage in the most recent public opinion survey by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc.

A wealthy born-again Christian, Harris has been so busy bashing Nelson as a tax-and-spend liberal that she's had little time to explore her positions on issues, beyond reciting the Republican orthodoxy: lower taxes, stronger national security and traditional values.

Nelson, a former House member who rode aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1986, has positioned himself as a moderate who can work with Republicans to get things done for Florida. He rarely mentions Harris directly on the campaign trail.

Perhaps most troubling for Harris, just 58% of Republican voters supported her, according to the mid-October poll.

"Even in hard times, most Republican candidates generate 80% to 85% support, at a minimum, with their party base," said Coker at Mason-Dixon.

Harris blames her troubles on disloyal staff members and reporters who she says take her comments out of context while fixating on her makeup instead of her record.

"It goes with the territory," she said.

Despite her troubles, Harris enjoys support from many rank-and-file Republicans who share her views.

"I take offense to people remarking to non-essential things like they didn't like her makeup," said Carol LaPlaca, a resident of the Century Village retirement home in West Palm Beach. "Let's talk about her views. Yes, she stands on very high moral views. I'll vote for her."