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Harris race is grist for rumor mill in capital

She's in, she's out, "she's getting it in gear," or "she's going down in flames." Her party talks to backups.

By ANITA KUMAR, ADAM C. SMITH and BILL ADAIR
Published March 9, 2006


[AP file photo]
Rep. Katherine Harris, R-Sarasota, is shown announcing her candidacy for the Senate in January 2004.

The Buzz blog

WASHINGTON - Proving yet again that her bid for U.S. Senate is one of the most volatile campaigns Florida has seen in years, Rep. Katherine Harris on Wednesday rode a roller coaster of rumors about whether she's dropping out of the race or forging ahead.

In the morning, the capital was abuzz that Harris was just about to end her campaign to unseat Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. By afternoon, the Longboat Key Republican was refusing to talk to reporters on Capitol Hill, but finally called the Associated Press to declare she's in the race to stay.

Then, some people didn't believe it.

"It's been a day of widespread rumor and widespread speculation," said Tommy Hopper, campaign manager for Republican U.S. House candidate Vern Buchanan of Sarasota, one of those often mentioned as a prospect to replace Harris on the ticket against Nelson. In the last week, both Buchanan and Rep. Mark Foley of West Palm Beach have been asked by national party leaders if they would run for Senate if Harris dropped out.

Buchanan has also been approached by local Republicans and Foley by his colleagues in the Florida delegation.

"He's been approached in the last week by national Republicans and some local Republicans," Hopper said of Buchanan, a millionaire businessman who is running to succeed Harris in Congress. "He has zero interest in running for the Senate and is not running for the Senate and will not run for the Senate."

Foley might be interested, but would await the reaction from a Harris departure.

"Once a domino falls," he said, "then you listen."

Harris's campaign, already suffering from months of weak fundraising, heavy staff turnover and an early lack of party support, took a big hit two weeks ago when federal prosecutors publicly linked her to a defense contractor at the center of a bribery case.

The crisis has snowballed in recent days, and she and her staff have kept to themselves, avoiding reporters, longtime supporters and even members of the Florida Republican Party.

She planned a strategy session with her campaign staff in Washington Wednesday night. Some said it was a brainstorming session to get her campaign back on track. Others said she was plotting a graceful exit.

This weekend, she is scheduled to campaign in Florida before attending the Southern Republican Leadership conference in Memphis. In May, she plans a bus tour with commentator Sean Hannity.

"She's been in neutral for a while, but I believe she's getting it in gear," said Rep. Tom Feeney, an Orlando area Republican who has been friends with Harris since the two served together in the state Legislature.

Yet as she tried to move past the scandal Wednesday, she kept facing new talk that her campaign was about to end.

By midafternoon reporters were waiting outside the House floor while members voted. The reporters sent in cards requesting that the representative come out for an interview - a request most members agree to - but she did not.

Shortly before 4 p.m. the Associated Press ran a story quoting her.

"I am out there. We are running hard. We think we have great momentum," Harris said. "We've had some negative hits but we've had an overwhelming response from grass roots and leadership around the state that are saying "Go for it,' and that's what we're doing."

But even after that declaration, the talk persisted.

Republican strategists, including David E. Johnson, said they still expect her to get out of the race in her own time and her own way.

"Her campaign is going down in flames," said Johnson, a pollster with Strategic Vision, who is not affiliated with any candidate in the U.S. Senate race. "You'd think she would see the handwriting on the wall."

Wednesday morning a Republican strategist close to Harris sent BlackBerrys buzzing when he told party activists she was dropping out.

"It's beginning to sound like wishful thinking on the part of others," said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "I'm not sure who's behind this but it sure comes across as sabotage."

Harris flew to Washington with Vice President Dick Cheney on Monday aboard Air Force Two, but some thought he snubbed her by failing to mention her by name when she was in the audience on a trip to Florida on Monday.

For all the bleak polls and doubts about her candidacy, Harris' departure would not leave the Republicans with an easy path for victory. Republicans face a tough political climate across the country with an unpopular war in Iraq and a president with the lowest approval ratings of his tenure.

They face a noncontroversial incumbent, widely viewed as a moderate, who already has raised more than $8-million for his re-election. Florida's biggest political stars, including Gov. Jeb Bush and gubernatorial candidates Charlie Crist and Tom Gallagher, have repeatedly ruled out running for Senate, and lesser known Republican face considerable obstacles catching up with Nelson.

The deadline for qualifying for the ballot is May 12.

Foley, who briefly ran for Senate two years ago, said he had not decided what he would do if she dropped out of the race. But he is thinking about the post-Harris possibilities.

"There's time before the May deadline," he said, adding that other candidates may enter the race. Foley said Gov. Bush "may decide this is the perfect job for him."

Florida House Speaker Allan Bense, who had considered a run last year, said earlier this week that a Senate bid is "not on my radar" but that he had been following Harris' problems.

Throughout the swirl of speculation, Harris has continued to make campaign appearances.

"When I talked to her, she indicated she is definitely going forward even with the bad press," said Dick Beard, a Tampa developer and prominent Republican fundraiser who saw Harris Sunday at the Little Everglades Steeplechase near Dade City.

Times staff writer Wes Allison and researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Anita Kumar can be reached at kumar@sptimes.com or 202 463-0576.

[Last modified March 9, 2006, 03:00:34]


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