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GOP can't elude Harris vs. Nelson

Allan Bense won't take on Katherine Harris. Jeb Bush is focused on finishing his term as governor. That leaves party leaders nearly ready to concede.

Published May 11, 2006

WASHINGTON - A desperate last-ditch Republican effort to replace Rep. Katherine Harris as the party's nominee for the U.S. Senate abruptly failed Wednesday when Florida House Speaker Allan Bense announced that he would not run.

Republicans now find themselves saddled with a candidate who has suffered repeated public embarrassments, including ties to a bribery scandal, and whom they have repeatedly declared unable to beat Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in November.

Bense's decision shocked and disappointed top Republicans from Washington to Tallahassee, including Gov. Jeb Bush and those at the White House, who had been counting on the affable and respected Panama City developer to challenge Harris.

Republican leaders said they are not recruiting another candidate, but a handful of lesser-known people are considering jumping into the September primary before Friday's noon deadline. Many Republicans, however, have taken the unheard of approach of declaring Nelson the winner six months before Election Day.

"I think the seat is over with," said Pat Roberts, a Republican lobbyist and longtime Harris friend who supported Bense in recent weeks. "I think he just got elected today. It's May, and that race just ended."

"Do we have a Senate race?" asked Ken Plante, a former Republican senator and lobbyist in Tallahassee. "I don't think so."

In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Harris said she was relieved that Bense decided not to run. After she heard the news in the morning, she said she called Bense but never heard back from him.

"Of course, it's a good day," she said. "We're pleased and grateful."

National party leaders, including those at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which doles out high-powered support and millions of dollars, are not expected to spend money and energy on Harris in a tough election year for Republicans across the nation.

"In a year like this, you don't back a losing horse," said Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant who has worked previously for Harris.

Some expect Florida Republican leaders, including Bush and Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, to reluctantly support her this fall so as to not bring down the rest of the GOP ticket.

"I think the party will get behind her, but the question will be the enthusiasm," said Brian Ballard, a Republican fundraiser.

Harris insisted party leaders will be behind her when she becomes the GOP nominee in the fall and dismissed talk that the criticism would hurt her in the polls.

"It's all internal party stuff. I don't think the average citizen cares about that," she said. "The party will be behind me when I'm the nominee."

Dan Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida, said both Harris and the Republican Party are to blame for her being an ineffective candidate, saying GOP leaders backed themselves into a corner by publicly criticizing Harris.

Even some Republicans wonder aloud whether Republicans hurt themselves by publicly speaking against Harris.

Tom Slade, former state GOP chairman, said the criticism of Harris from Bush and others complicates the party's chances in 2006 at a time when President Bush's popularity is at an all-time low, and polls show voters viewing Democrats more favorably in matchups with Republicans.

"It's hard to take back something that has been that destructive to the Harris campaign," Slade said.

Republican leaders in Washington and Tallahassee sought alternative candidates last summer when they knew Harris was planning on running. They recruited Bense last year, and appealed to him again in recent weeks after more problems surfaced in Harris' campaign.

"My instincts told me that this was not a race I wanted to take on. It's very, very late, and in terms of the dollars I'd have to raise, it's astronomical," Bense said.

Bense said he felt he has slighted his three children for the past eight years as a House member, and concluded he would rather get closer to them. Daughter Courtney will be married this summer, son Jason just graduated from college and son Taylor is at home.

"I'm ready to move on with the next phase of my life," he said.

Bush, who heard the news from Bense in a morning phone call, said he is disappointed but understands. "If you don't have it in your heart, if you're not ready to go all out, it can wear you out pretty quickly," he said.

Harris may still face a challenge for the Republican Senate nomination.

At least three Republicans, all from West Central Florida, said Wednesday they are seriously considering running against Harris: state Rep. Dennis Ross of Lakeland, LeRoy Collins Jr., the son the late Gov. LeRoy Collins, and Peter Monroe, a developer from Safety Harbor who in the early 1990s headed the Oversight Board of the Resolution Trust Corp., which handled failed savings and loans.

"It's a daunting task. I realize that, but I think you never know how far you can go unless you try to go too far," said Collins, 71, a Tampa businessman.

It's unlikely any of them could catch up to a celebrity like Harris, a hero to many for her role as secretary of state during the bitter 2000 presidential recount. Most Republican strategists saw Bense as the last and best hope.

"I can't imagine at this point that she's not going to be challenged, but there's a significant difference between a self-funder and someone who would have had the kind of widespread support as Bense," said Ed Rollins, former Harris campaign adviser.

In a Quinnipiac University poll released in late April, 56 percent of those polled said they favored Nelson and 27 percent supported Harris, with 14 percent undecided. Fifty-eight percent of Republicans said they expected Nelson to win.

"I don't see anybody else who can do this," Ballard said. "I think Allan Bense was our hope."

Harris' campaign recently became something of a political circus during weeks of uncertainty and second-guessing.

Her campaign initially suffered from weak fundraising, heavy staff turnover and faint party support. Just as her campaign was starting to turn around, she was linked to a national bribery scandal that put another member of Congress behind bars.

In March, almost her entire senior staff quit after declaring her campaign hopeless.

"There is a lot of frustration out there. This is like the Titanic," said Van Poole, former state Republican Party chairman. "When people start laughing (at your campaign) you know you are in trouble."

Harris went to Congress in 2002 and won re-election last year after being talked out of running for the Senate in 2004.

Nelson, who won his first term in 2000 with just 51 percent of the vote, was expected to be one of the GOP's top Senate targets this year.

Asked Wednesday if he had celebrated because Bense was not entering the race, Nelson said, "I've been celebrating by making additional (fundraising) phone calls." But, he said, with Bense not entering the race: "The fundraisers I'm doing in the Panhandle got a lot easier."

Would Bense have been tougher?

"Whoever it is, I take them seriously," he said.

-- Times staff writers Bill Adair, Steve Bousquet, Tamara Lush and Adam C. Smith and researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Anita Kumar can be reached at or (202) 463-0576.

[Last modified May 11, 2006, 06:02:39]

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