More signs of disarray in Harris campaign

atherine Harris' Senate campaign faces more turmoil, with reports she'll have to finance her own run and that a top adviser has quit.

Published March 14, 2006

Even as word spread that Katherine Harris was about to pump millions of her own money into her U.S. Senate campaign, evidence of disarray mounted.

Plans for a "major campaign announcement" today were suddenly scrapped as Harris reportedly decided to announce her plans on national TV rather than face questions from Florida reporters.

And late Tuesday came reports that one of Harris' top advisers, pollster Ed Goeas, was the latest to quit her campaign.

Former Pinellas Republican chairman Paul Bedinghaus said he understood from the Harris campaign that she planned to announce she would put as much as $5-million of her own money into the campaign.

"It's a great strategy to show your supporters and others that you believe in your own campaign, and (that) will help her get the resources she needs in the short run to run an effective campaign," said Bedinghaus, a Republican state committee member.

But her campaign's silence fueled talk of instability within the Harris campaign.

"As soon as we have everything finalized as to when and where the announcement will take place, we'll let everybody know," said campaign spokesman Morgan Dobbs.

Asked about Goeas' reported departure, Dobbs would only say "I have not been told that."

Goeas runs the Tarrance Group, one of the most high-powered Republican polling firms in the nation, and has worked with President Bush and several members of the Florida delegation. He was one of Harris' closest advisers, along with New York based consultant Ed Rollins. Goeas did not return phone calls.

Mike Miller, until recently Harris' finance director, said even her top advisers may not know what is happening from one day to the next.

"I don't think this is staff-driven," Miller said. "I think this is Katherine-driven."

For months, Harris' campaign suffered from weak fundraising, heavy staff turnover and a lack of party support. Her poll numbers have remained well behind Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson's. Just as her campaign was starting to turn around, federal prosecutors linked her to a defense contractor at the center of a bribery case.

Still, Harris, 48, at least appeared to have muted talk about ending her campaign. That she had planned to make her announcement in Bartow rather than her hometown of Sarasota led to speculation she would not seek re-election to her House seat.

The Pinellas Republican Executive Committee even voted Monday night to formally endorse Harris. Pinellas Republican chairman Tony Dimatteo said he recommended the endorsement "after talking to Katherine and the state party. ... If there was any indication that she was dropping out, endorsing her would be a moot point. ... Until she says any different, she is the Republican candidate for United States Senate and we're 100 percent behind her."

Tommy Hopper, campaign manager for car dealer Vern Buchanan, who is running for Harris' seat, said he has heard she will put a significant amount of money into her campaign - perhaps as much as $10-million.

"I think she's in it and in it to stay," he said. "But I don't think anyone else knows for sure what Harris is going to do."

A fourth-generation Floridian, Harris is the granddaughter of Ben Hill Griffin Jr., the late citrus and cattle magnate whose name graces the University of Florida football stadium.

Harris was worth about $7-million in 2001, according to state financial records. Three years later, Harris was worth $10-million to $39-million, according to her federal financial disclosure reports, which allow her to report ranges rather than specific figures.

The increase came after her grandfather died in 1990. Harris sold her family stock, worth between $5-million and $25-million, after a five-year battle among Griffin's heirs, including Harris' mother, Harriet, after his death. The five children divided the multimillion dollar estate.

These figures do not include money she inherited when her father, George Harris, died in January. His assets were reported to be more than $750-million.

At the end of last year, Harris had raised about $1-million, compared to $8-million for Nelson. Under federal campaign finance laws, kicking in millions of her own money could trigger a so-called "millionaire's amendment" which allows rivals to receive bigger campaign contributions.

But that might do little to help Nelson, unless Harris spent millions of her own money on the general election after September.

Two obscure candidates, Belinda Noah and Howard W. Knepper, have announced their candidacies for the Republican nomination, but have shown little signs of viability. Tom Rooney, a political newcomer who is grandson of the late Pittsburgh Steelers patriarch Art Rooney, said he is looking at running for the Republican nomination. He said, though, that he could "absolutely not" put millions of personal money into the race.

If he got in, Rooney said, he might spend about $200,000 off the bat to get a strong campaign team in place.

The deadline for qualifying for the ballot is May 12.

Times staff writers Wes Allison and Shannon Breen and researchers Carolyn Edds and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com