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Katherine Harris looks to put past negative image behind her

By TAMARA LUSH
Published October 20, 2004

SARASOTA - As the presidential election rekindles sour memories of the 2000 recount, one of the most polarizing figures from that episode is aiming for a second term in Congress.

Katherine Harris, Florida's much-maligned former secretary of state, one of the Republican Party's top fundraisers and ardent Bush-backer, stands a good chance of re-election, political experts say.

Her challenger is Democrat Jan Schneider, the 57-year-old former Washington lawyer who lost to Harris 55-45 percent in 2002.

Schneider says she can win this year through better name recognition, a new crop of registered Democrats and increased voter turnout. She has also enlisted one of the Democratic Party's big guns as an adviser: Joe Trippi, the consultant behind former presidential candidate Howard Dean's campaign.

"Trippi is looking to be a dragonslayer here," said Tramm Hudson, chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota County.

Yet Schneider acknowledges that the next two weeks will be a struggle. Harris, 47, has lots of money at her disposal and a Republican-friendly congressional district south of the Tampa Bay area.

Schneider is bolstered by a recent Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee poll that puts her 6 points behind Harris.

"The last time, we lost on turnout," said Schneider, who has lived in Sarasota full-time seven years and as a snowbird since 1976. "This time, we're doing better."

The two women are vying for the District 13 seat, which includes all of Sarasota, Hardee and DeSoto counties, a large chunk of Manatee County and part of Charlotte County. It is a socially and demographically diverse district. For instance, only 8 percent of Sarasota County's population lives below the poverty level, while in neighboring Hardee, nearly 25 percent of the residents live below federal poverty standards.

The two women differ on almost every issue. Harris supports a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, backs the Iraq war and approves of nearly all of President Bush's proposals. Schneider, on the other hand, supports same-sex unions, opposes the Iraq war and disagrees with nearly all of President Bush's ideas.

"If you look at Jan Schneider's positions and Katherine Harris' positions, they are traditional Republican versus traditional Democrat views," said Hudson. "This race is split like this mainly because the whole country is split."

Harris said she should be re-elected because she is effective. She "has never worked harder" than she has in Congress, she said, adding that she even enjoys working with some Democrats.

"When they realized I wasn't Cruella DeVil, the Democrats were really good to me," Harris said, poking fun at a liberal caricature of herself during the 2000 election.

Groups such as the Christian Coalition, the League of Private Property Owners and the Associated Builders and Contractors Association have all given Harris high marks. Other groups such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the National Education Association and the NAACP have given her low scores, based on her votes in Congress.

According to Project Vote Smart, a non-partisan clearinghouse for voter information, Harris' positions were similar to President Bush's 100 percent of the time.

Schneider has been endorsed by the Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO and retiring Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.

Schneider's political platform rests on revamping the nation's health care system. Like her friend and Yale law school colleague U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, Schneider supports a single-payer system.

Harris has far outspent her opponent, having raised $2.2-million during her re-election campaign, and spent a considerable amount of money on TV ads in the Tampa Bay market.

Meanwhile, the Democrats have not exactly poured money into Schneider's coffers; they donated $7,499 to her campaign, while most of the rest of her contributions come from private individuals, including retirees and artists.

As of Sept. 30, Schneider had raised $340,000, and spent nearly two-thirds of that on her primary bid.

Della Bailey of Bradenton, who was shopping at St. Armand's Circle on a recent sunny day, said she would vote for Harris. "She's a very good speaker, and I like the things that she's done."

Although Bailey, 52, couldn't name any of those things, she has a positive view of Harris.

"I like her a lot," she said.

That sort of visceral reaction to Harris isn't uncommon, said Amy Walter, of the Cook Report, a nonpartisan analysis group in Washington, D.C.

"She's like Hillary Clinton," said Walter. "Very few people feel ambivalent toward her."

Walter said Harris rubbed some people the wrong way earlier this year when she claimed that a terrorist plot existed to blow up the power grid in Carmel, Ind. City officials said they knew of no such plot. Harris later said she regretted causing any concern when she mentioned the alleged plot, and that a man of Middle Eastern heritage who had explosives in his home had been arrested.

Still, Walter said, such a flub won't deny Harris re-election in her district.

"The bottom line is, you still have a Republican-leaning district," Walter said.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has reserved time in the Tampa Bay media market for Schneider's ads, but Walter speculates that any commercials may be too little, too late.

"I don't know if a week's worth of ads are going to make that much of an impact," Walter said.

And if Schneider needs anything, it's name recognition.

"Jan is totally untested in our community," said former Sarasota mayor Mollie Cardamone, a Republican who was going to cross party lines if Christine Jennings, another Democrat, had won the primary. "Jan does not have a broad base of friendship or support or involvement."

Schneider needs exposure even among Democrats, many of whom intensely dislike Harris.

"If I do vote, I don't think I'll be voting for Katherine Harris," said Brittany Thrush, a 21-year-old coffeeshop barista in Sarasota who has definite ideas on the presidential race but no clear ideas on the House contest.

Thrush said she served Harris a latte in her coffeeshop last year, and Harris was extremely snippy when she spied a little milk froth in her cup.

"It's kind of hard to avoid foam on a latte," said Thrush. "I guess she's a no-foam kind of gal."

Thrush said she also disagrees with Harris' positions on education, abortion and the war.

Still, Thrush had no idea who Harris' opponent is.

"I don't know anything about that person," she said.

- Tamara Lush can be reached at 727-893-8612 or at lush@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 20, 2004, 18:26:32]

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