As filing deadline looms, Republicans look to Bense
It's becoming apparent that the GOP machine would rev up full tilt behind much favored lawmaker Allan Bense.
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published May 10, 2006
TAMPA - One fleeting moment Tuesday captured the awkward dilemma facing Florida Republicans.
As U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris clutched the hand of President Bush on a MacDill Air Force Base tarmac, his brother Jeb watched with a look of apprehension. The governor has dismissed Harris as incapable of defeating Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, and has led an effort to encourage House Speaker Allan Bense to challenge her in the primary.
Now, with two days before Friday's noon qualifying deadline, the question is whether Bense will be in the picture.
"He said he was still talking to people and hadn't made up his mind yet," Gov. Bush said Tuesday, describing a phone conversation with Bense on Monday.
Tuesday came and went with still no indication of Bense's plans. He spent much of the day on the phone at his waterfront home in Panama City, and did not return messages left on his cell phone and with his wife, Tonie.
Former state Republican Party chairman Al Cardenas, an enthusiastic Bense backer, said Bense must quickly mount an effective campaign targeting Nelson, a Senate incumbent with $10.3-million on hand, more than any Senate candidate except New York's Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But as Cardenas sees it, money is the least of Bense's worries. The coming campaign is viewed as potentially treacherous for Republicans.
"His biggest challenge is, it's a challenging election cycle," Cardenas said. "It doesn't have someone by the name of Bush on the ticket, and he's running against an incumbent. A beatable one, but an incumbent."
But as Cardenas sees it, Bense would gain needed momentum and credibility by vanquishing Harris, a controversial figure with a national profile.
"He'll make the right decision for him," Cardenas said. "I hope that's the same one that's the right decision for his party."
With Harris reeling from a series of setbacks, from staff defections to questions about campaign donations, Gov. Bush sized up Harris' chances Monday: "I just don't believe she can win."
Some Republicans say Bush's increasingly pessimistic assessment of Harris' chances sends a clear signal to the wide universe of Bush loyalists that a path is being cleared for a Bense candidacy.
Bush further nudged Bense by describing a "window of opportunity" for him to enter the race.
"He's strongly advocating that Allan gets in. I have never seen that before," said Brian Ballard, a Republican fundraiser and lobbyist. "(U.S. Sen.) Mel Martinez wasn't courted like this. When someone like Jeb Bush says you can't beat the Democrat in Florida, that's a pretty damning indictment."
Bense, 54, is a self-made contractor with a net worth of more than $11-million. A former Democrat, he was elected to the House in 1998 and won the speaker's job after a grueling 18-month campaign in which he raised nearly $500,000 and overcame a challenge from Rep. Gaston Cantens of Miami.
He won praise from Democrats and Republicans alike for an evenhandedness in running the House, where his party had an overwhelming 85-35 advantage. Such was the affection for Bense that as the session came to a close late Friday, some lawmakers wiped tears from their eyes.
Early Saturday, as dozens of people wore Bense-for-Senate stickers in the crowded Capitol at the end of the session, Bense displayed his self-deprecating humor. As his two-year speakership winds down, he readily admits he's an unknown outside Tallahassee and his Panhandle district.
"I'm still, statewide, a nobody, and now I'm a has-been, too. So I'm 0-for-2," he said.
Former state Republican Party chairman Van Poole said he urged Bense to enter the race more than a year ago. Since then, Poole said, like many other GOP insiders, he signed a letter endorsing Harris when it appeared no one else would step forward to run.
Poole said he and other Republicans are encouraged by the possible emergence of Bense.
"It's a new day," Poole said. "If he got in, I think you would see a flood of people like me jumping over to Allan."
But Poole, who ran his own unsuccessful Senate race in 1982, said Bense is running out of time and must decide whether he has the passion for a grueling six-month statewide campaign, followed by an even greater passion to serve in the Senate.
"He's checked all the political boxes in terms of the support he's going to need," Cardenas said. "The only box left to check is the "personal decision' box."
Times staff writers Bill Adair, Alex Leary and Anita Kumar contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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