Harris could get some competition

Published April 26, 2006

Can any Republican beat a conservative icon like Katherine Harris?

Republican party activists are increasingly mulling that question as evidence builds that state House Speaker Allan Bense could soon jump into the U.S. Senate race. In the latest signal that Harris is losing her already tenuous support from party leaders, Gov. Jeb Bush on Wednesday touted Bense's candidacy.

"I know a lot of people are encouraging him to run. He's a great leader and an extraordinary person, and he would be a great United States senator but that's up to him," Bush told reporters when asked if Bense should jump in.

Bense, a wealthy Panama City businessman whom Bush and the White House had courted for the race last summer, acknowledges he is again thinking about it. But he repeatedly says he's focused on completing the legislative session scheduled to end May 5 - exactly one week before the deadline for qualifying for the ballot.

Polls consistently show Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson trouncing Harris by roughly 30 percentage points, and some activists worry she's so polarizing that she could hurt other Republicans on the ballot by depressing turnout.

Last Friday, Harris and the state Republican Party chairwoman had a private lunch to discuss the state of the senate race. A party spokesman declined to discuss the nature of that conversation, but offered qualified support for Harris.

"Because she is the only candidate right now we support her," Republican spokesman Jeff Sadosky said.

U.S. Rep Harris has been buffeted by bad publicity, most recently revelations that she had a $2,800 dinner with a defense contractor later convicted of bribing a congressman. But taking on one of the biggest Republican celebrities in the GOP primary could be daunting even for a challenger backed by Gov. Bush and the White House.

"Nobody can beat her in a Republican primary," said Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park. "As long as she is in, she is the nominee."

Polls, however, point to soft support even among Republicans. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week found that one in four Republicans surveyed backed Nelson over Harris (while 8 percent of Democrats backed Harris). It also showed that only 30 percent of Republicans had a favorable view of Harris (while 32 percent of Republicans and 48 percent of Democrats had a favorable view of Nelson).

"There's probably a fairly even split of the people who are solidly behind Katherine and those who are not solidly behind her yet and thinking about another candidate probably would be nice," said Eric Allen, Republican Chairman in Polk County, where Harris grew up.

Bense is a self-made millionaire who has won strong reviews for his leadership of the state House. Still, few voters know anything about him, and by some estimates it could cost $10-million to compete with someone so well known as Harris.

"He would be a formidable candidate. Certainly he's got chits across the state helping people," U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-West Palm Beach said of Bense.

Bense acknowledged the difficulty of the race on Monday. "She's currently the candidate and I'm a nobody. Beyond these four blocks (around the Capitol), I'm a nobody. I understand that," he said.

But, he added, "All my life I've loved a good challenge."

Meanwhile, Harris is telling people she's in to stay, and some party activists say a bruising primary battle might be fine for the Republican also expecting tough gubernatorial primary.

As the buzz over Allan Bense grew this week, a new Katherine Harris fundraising letter hit Florida homes.

"I have been loyal to our Republican leaders here in Florida and in our nation's capital - from Jeb Bush to President George Bush. ...And I have been loyal to the Republican Party and my constituents who elected me to work tirelessly for their best interest. Today I am asking you to return that same loyalty to me by helping fund my U.S. Senate campaign," Harris wrote.

Bill Adair, Steve Bousquet and Joni James contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com