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White House aide has praise for Bense

He "would be great in any office he ran for," offers President Bush's political director - another nudge of Florida's House speaker toward a U.S. Senate race.

By BILL ADAIR and ADAM C. SMITH
Published May 4, 2006


WASHINGTON - The White House added a new wrinkle to Florida's U.S. Senate race Wednesday by pointedly praising state House Speaker Allan Bense.

In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Sara Taylor, President Bush's political director, said Bense "would be great in any office he ran for."

Taylor said she knows Bense from her dealings with Florida Republican leaders. "I think the world of the guy," she said. "I think he's a class act, he's a very strong leader. He's somebody who is a consensus builder."

Taylor's comments were a subtle but unmistakable signal that the White House is getting more involved in the race for the Republican nomination. Many state Republican leaders want an alternative to Rep. Katherine Harris, R-Longboat Key, who is tangled in the scandal involving a defense contractor and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham. The deadline to enter the race is May 12.

Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the Cook Political Report, said Taylor's comments are "very much a signal that the White House political operation is encouraging Bense to get in the race. It's also a sign they have stepped back their support for Harris. They had been saying mildly supportive things."

Taylor did not criticize Harris, but she also did not offer much support for the former Florida secretary of state, who played a key role in Bush's 2000 victory.

Asked about the political implications of Harris' involvement in the Cunningham case, Taylor said, "I think all candidates in all races have challenges. They come in different forms. She certainly, as all candidates do, is going to have to figure out how she is going to deal with those challenges."

Harris has vowed to stay in the race. On Wednesday she began airing her first TV ads around the state.

The White House praise provides Bense a fresh boost. He also has received kind words from Gov. Jeb Bush, who said Tuesday he hopes someone else will enter the race.

"I mean, clearly, she has every right to run," the governor said. "I've not made any suggestion about her getting out of the race, but I do think (Democratic incumbent) Sen. (Bill) Nelson is vulnerable. I have doubts about whether she can win. There may be other candidates who aspire to the job who have a better chance of winning."

Bense, who several months ago did not want to run, has said recently that he is now considering a run and will decide after the legislative session ends this weekend.

Harris has consistently said she is staying in the race, but the uncertainty has continued because of the chaos and controversy dogging her campaign. Duffy, the political analyst, said Bense would have an easier time raising money because Harris has contributed $3-million to her campaign, triggering the "millionaire rule." That would allow Bense to accept $12,600 from each contributor, six times the usual limit, Duffy said. If Bense enters the race, he is likely to get the backing of key Republican fundraisers.

Times Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at 202 463-0575 or adair@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 4, 2006, 00:59:16]


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