Harris challenger's deep pockets attract speculation

By Times Staff
Published May 21, 2006

Gov. Jeb Bush made it clear that his preferred candidate to challenge Sen. Bill Nelson was House Speaker Allan Bense, who wound up sitting out the race. Now that three little-known Republicans - LeRoy Collins Jr., Peter Monroe and Will McBride - are challenging front-runner Katherine Harris for the GOP nomination, will the governor stay on the sidelines?

We wonder if that question came up Friday night at the Florida Family Policy Council banquet, where the governor was seated next to Stuart Epperson, chairman of Salem Communications, the biggest religious radio broadcaster in America. Epperson's son-in-law is Senate candidate McBride, which has a lot of people wondering if the Orlando lawyer and first-time candidate will pump millions of dollars of family money into the race.

"Everybody's asking that," a chuckling McBride said in his first comments since entering the race. "We're raising the money to be competitive in the primary and more than competitive in the general election. ... I'm looking forward to giving Republicans a viable alternative that can close the gap" with Nelson."

McBride said he was swamped with calls urging him to get in and that he harbors no ill will toward Harris. "It's not about Katherine Harris; it's about finding someone who can be competitive with Bill Nelson."

Despite Bush recently declaring that Harris is doomed to lose, the Longboat Key Republican said in a Political Connections interview airing at 11 a.m. today on Bay News 9 that she's hopeful the governor will campaign with her: "He's been an amazing governor, and his support will mean a lot."

Bush said in an e-mail Saturday that he would be neutral in the primary. He sat next to Epperson, he said, simply because that's where he was placed.

FORMER FLAMES? Back then they were just a couple of 30-somethings - unattached, attractive, snappily dressed and not yet on their way to political stardom. But what a couple: Harris and Charlie Crist.

Sure enough, the Republican front-runner for the Senate nomination and the Republican front-runner for the gubernatorial nomination acknowledged to the Buzz that they once dated.

"He's the nicest guy. I loooove his mom and dad," Harris said of the attorney general from St. Petersburg.

"I thought she was charming and lovely. We had a nice couple of dinners," Crist said by phone, pegging the time frame to more than 10 years ago. "She has remained a dear friend and she is a great public servant."

AN INDEPENDENT STREAK: New voter registration statistics are burnishing the Tampa Bay region's reputation as the home of swing voters, the persuadables who are independent-minded and not tethered to either party.

Since Feb. 26, when the state kicked off an aggressive effort to register voters, more than 19,000 people have signed up in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, Hernando and Citrus counties. In all, new Democrats outnumber new Republicans 7,106 to 6,844, but the total number of voters who registered as NPAs, or "no party affiliation," is 5,781, far above the statewide average of about 20 percent.

WRITING OFF THE SCIENTOLOGY VOTE: After being honored Friday night by the social conservative group Florida Family Policy Council, Bush mused that reporters were so fascinated by the gathering because they view religion as a strange concept.

"People who act on their faith are a large number of people in our state. Sometimes I think you guys write about them like they're mutants out there, like they're some weird little group, like they're Scientologists or something," the governor said.

-- Adam C. Smith, Steve Bousquet, Joni James and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this week's Buzz. For more political news check out www.sptimes.com/blogs/buzz.