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3 rivals struggle to be noticed

Katherine Harris gets all the publicity, but she isn't alone in a primary race that will pick the Republican candidate for the Senate.

By ANITA KUMAR
Published July 16, 2006


Rep. Katherine Harris never mentions her Republican opponents in her uphill battle to become Florida's next senator.

Instead, she talks about incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson in every campaign stop, in every speech, in every question-and-answer session as if she already were the Republican nominee in the race.

Many are surprised to learn that she is not.

Harris faces three candidates in the September primary. The trio's late arrival into the race, combined with their lack of money and name recognition, make her the one to beat -- and the one who is unlikely to be beaten.

It took them almost two months but her opponents - LeRoy Collins Jr., Will McBride and Peter Monroe - just now are starting to raise money and campaign around the state full time at parades and gun shows, civic clubs and churches.

They can't stop talking about Harris. They question her ethics, her voting record, her electability in a general election against Nelson, who has strong support and millions of dollars in the bank.

Despite Harris' new spate of problems, most political experts, even Republican strategists who oppose Harris, predict she will win the primary. Last week, Harris lost most of her senior campaign staff for a second time, but for many she remains a GOP darling for her role as Florida secretary of state during the bitter 2000 presidential recount.

"Katherine Harris is the prohibitive favorite," said Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant who has previously worked for Harris but is not involved in the race. "A lot of people wish it were different, but it is not. The status quo remains what it is. She can't be beaten. I don't see anything changing."

Collins, McBride and Monroe each jumped in the race just hours before the qualifying period closed in mid May after prominent Republicans, including Gov. Jeb Bush, frantically searched but failed to find someone to run against her. None has run for office.

The candidates' mere presence forces Harris to spend some time, money and energy on the primary as they criss-cross the state informing potential voters that there are other options besides Harris, who has endured months of problems including resignations, weak fundraising and ties to an admitted briber.

"I agree with Katherine Harris on the issues, but she seems to attract a lot of negative attention," said Mary Johnson, who attended a lunch in Volusia County's Orange City July 9 to learn more about McBride. "So we'll see. I have to do my homework."

The strategy may work with some of the state's 4-million registered Republicans, but it will likely not be enough to win with less than two months before the Sept. 5 primary.

A recent poll by Quinnipiac University showed that Harris would garner 35 percent in a Republican primary, while a whopping 72 to 86 percent said they didn't know enough about Collins, McBride or Monroe.

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.

Anita Kumar can be reached at akumar@sptimes.com or 202-463-0576.

[Last modified July 16, 2006, 01:17:06]


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