Can Harris make Nelson the issue?
It's hard to fan the flames of anger against a middle-of-the-road candidate.
By WES ALLISON and ADAM C. SMITH
Published March 28, 2006
WASHINGTON - According to Rep. Katherine Harris, her opponent is "in bed with Ted Kennedy on gay marriage" and to the left of New York Sens. Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, two of the most polarizing politicians in the nation. He is an enemy of small business and family values.
As Harris struggles to ignite her campaign for the Senate, she has begun fanning flames of anger against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, whom she has labeled an unrepentant left-winger, far out of the mainstream of Florida voters.
But that may prove a tough case to make.
In his five years in the Senate, Nelson has compiled a moderate voting record, consistently appearing in national rankings as moderately left of center, usually among the 10 or 12 most conservative Democrats in the Senate.
Meanwhile, Harris' rocky start and the controversy surrounding her candidacy, as well as her polarizing role in the 2000 presidential election, may turn Nelson's biggest weakness into a major strength: It is not a bad time to be a middle-of-the-road candidate who doesn't generate much passion.
He may not inspire, several polls show, but he also doesn't offend.
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As the challenger, Harris must convince Florida voters to fire Nelson, and she needs desperately to shift the focus from the drama of her campaign to questions of his performance.
At a Florida Federation of Republican Women dinner in Tallahassee last week, Harris roused the adoring crowd as she blasted Nelson for opposing President Bush's nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court and for casting votes hostile to small business and in favor of higher taxes.
She said - somewhat incorrectly - the National Federation of Independent Business gave Nelson a zero rating, while she scored a perfect 100.
"Imagine what Florida would be like if Hillary Clinton or New York Sen. Charles Schumer were our senators," Harris said, citing a National Journal survey showing that Nelson's voting record is more liberal than theirs.
"How can it be possible that Bill Nelson's values align with ours when he voted last year to the left of those two senators?"
Harris has made much of the 2004 ratings of the National Journal , which each year analyzes key votes and ranks members of Congress, conservative to liberal. That year - not last year, as Harris said in her speech - Nelson indeed scored to the left of Clinton and Schumer by several points, with an overall liberal rating of 76.7 out of 100. According to the Journal, that means he was more liberal than three-quarters of the Senate.
In the partisan gridlock of Congress such rankings are sometimes better reflections of how often a member votes with the party leadership than pure ideology, however.
In 2004, for instance, Nelson's "liberal" score increased because he joined Democratic leaders in backing "pay-as-you-go" deficit-fighting measures. He wound up to the left of Clinton because of a few arcane votes - he disagreed with her on limiting debate on a renewable fuels bills, for example.
Still, Nelson earns some interest group ratings that Harris surely will highlight as she courts the right.
NARAL Pro Choice America gave Nelson a 75 percent rating in 2005 and a 100 percent rating in 2004. The National Taxpayers Union said Nelson voted its way just 16 percent of the time in 2005, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave Nelson a 50 percent rating. The chamber scored Harris at 89 percent for her votes in the House.
But in the five years Nelson has served in the Senate, his average National Journal ranking is almost 14 points to the right of Clinton's five-year average, and 11 points to the right of Schumer's.
Nelson declined to comment on Harris' charges, saying through a spokesman it was too early to engage in tit for tat with her. "Regardless of who my opponent is, I'm preparing for a tough race," he said in a statement.
Nelson was Florida's insurance commissioner when he ran for the Senate in 2000, and he didn't have the record of votes he has now. At campaign stops and on national TV interviews, Harris has been picking issues and votes to make her case that Nelson is a hard-core liberal. Among them:
GAY MARRIAGE: Nelson voted against amending the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage in 2004. He says he opposes gay marriage, but believes each state should decide. The measure died.
PARTIAL BIRTH ABORTION: Nelson voted no in 2003 on the ban signed by the president, which makes the procedure illegal except when the life of the woman is at stake. He voted yes on a competing version with exemptions for the health of the woman.
THE UNBORN: Nelson voted against the Unborn Victims of Crime Act - also known as Laci and Conner's Law, for the murder of Laci Peterson, who was pregnant - that allows additional federal charges if a fetus is killed during a crime. It also defines life as beginning with conception. "Nelson believed this was a transparent attempt to undermine ... Roe vs. Wade by giving legal rights to a fetus," his office said.
Nelson voted for a similar but failed version of the bill that didn't mention when life might begin.
HIGHER TAXES: That's a mixed bag. Nelson opposed the president's $1.35-trillion tax cut package in 2001 because of its effect on the national debt. But he also has voted to keep middle-income people from having to pay the alternative minimum tax and for allowing taxpayers to deduct state and local taxes from their federal returns. He is a sponsor of the bill to repeal the estate tax.
Polls show Harris is losing among independent voters, who may be further alienated if she bases her campaign on social issues like gay marriage and abortion. But these themes have generated strong turnout for conservatives the past two elections, and may help Harris build credibility and enthusiasm among the Republican base.
John Dowless, a Republican political consultant and former director of the Christian Coalition of Florida, said it's a smart strategy, particularly if she can put Nelson on the defensive.
"If she can actually hit those issues, and if she can control that, she could start turning things around," said Dowless, president of Millennium Consulting in Orlando.
"I think his support is a mile wide and an inch deep. ... If she can take the focus off her, I think Nelson is extremely vulnerable."
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As the last statewide elected Democrat in a state that has been trending Republican, and with middling poll numbers, Nelson has long been considered vulnerable to a strong Republican challenger.
Consider his recent approval ratings, according to a Quinnipiac University poll taken last month: A lukewarm 49 percent of registered voters in Florida believe he's doing a good job. Only 19 percent of voters disapprove of the job he's doing.
And, despite three decades in Florida politics, 32 percent of voters had no opinion of his performance.
Other recent polls show similar numbers: soft support, low negatives, lots of shrugs.
That's partly a result of Florida's ever-changing population, but it may be a plus against a candidate like Harris, who has been awash in controversy since her decisions in the 2000 presidential recount helped put Bush in the White House.
"He is a blank slate - his supporters aren't that ardent, his opponents aren't that ardent," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, which is tracking the race.
"That can hurt a candidate if his opponent is someone who is broadly popular, but that's not the case here."
Republican and some Democratic operatives agree that Nelson would be in far worse shape if the GOP had unified behind a strong candidate in the fall. Instead, the party lost precious months by shunning Harris and trying to recruit someone else, while her campaign has been beset by staff desertions and fundraising troubles.
Meanwhile, Republicans are trying to unseat Nelson in one of the most hostile political climates they have faced in years. A March 6-9 poll of 1,000 registered voters in Florida by InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion Research found that 48 percent would rather see Democrats control Congress. Only 38 percent wanted Republicans in charge.
The poll found Nelson beating Harris 45 percent to 23 percent. But more stunning, Nelson was beating Florida's biggest political star, Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, 48 percent to 44 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.
In November, the same pollster found Bush leading Nelson by 5 percentage points.
A lackluster fundraiser in 2000, Nelson has raised $10.5-million as of the end of last year - $4-million more than he raised in all of his last race.
In the last year, Nelson has largely avoided ideological battles in the Capitol, except for his vote against Alito, and has focused on safe issues like oil and gas drilling off Florida's west coast, identity theft, and confusion over the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, called Part D.
Tom Eldon, vice president of Schroth & Associates, a Democratic polling firm the St. Petersburg Times uses for its election year polling, acknowledged Nelson "doesn't generate that much enthusiasm."
But, he added, "I just don't see people coming home from work muttering Bill Nelson's name under their breath. There's nothing about Bill Nelson that's going to inflame people, which is what she's going to have to try to do."
--Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.
[Last modified March 28, 2006, 11:15:35]
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