Harris brushes off attack

A GOP rival calls for her to abandon her campaign. But his comments get a chilly reception.

Published August 5, 2006

NORTH REDINGTON BEACH - Like an officer and a gentleman, retired admiral and underdog Republican Senate candidate LeRoy Collins Jr., warmly greeted Katherine Harris and pulled her chair out for her at the start of a candidate forum Friday.

Little did Harris know Collins wanted to yank her right off her perch.

After pleasant opening remarks about his experience on nuclear subs, family and friends, the son of the late governor cut to the chase: "No one works harder than Katherine Harris, but ... the notoriety that she's gotten for our party in my opinion has infected us all. So on this occasion I would like to suggest to her that she withdraw from this race."

"I'm serious," Collins continued as the crowd chuckled nervously and Harris looked on expressionless. "I think for the benefit of the country, for the state and also for her own self-respect."

Off to the side of the Wine Cellar dining hall, a woman in pastel muttered, "Now sit down and shut up."

The chilly reaction to Collins' comment before the Belleair Women's Republican Club provided a reminder that despite the flood of problems besetting Harris' campaign, rivals attack her before Republican activists at their own peril. In Manatee County Tuesday night, Republican candidate Peter Monroe hustled out of a Republican gathering after getting booed for saying Harris had no chance against Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson.

Friday's forum offered what may be the last time all four Republican candidates appear together, and Harris brushed off Collins' comment.

"If you're falling so far behind, maybe it's a good press gimmick," she told reporters later.

The Republican frontrunner sounded thoroughly upbeat and confident despite the mountain of negative publicity she's received: constant turnover on her campaign staff, terrible polling numbers against Nelson, party leaders from Jeb Bush to state GOP Chairwoman Carole Jean Jordan publicly dismissing her chances, and most recently revelations that federal investigators had subpoenaed her campaign records, apparently as part of an investigation into Harris' dealings with Mitchell Wade, a defense contractor convicted of bribing another congressman.

Making her first public comments on the May subpoena, Harris said she had no obligation to disclose it top campaign staffers quit after realizing why she had asked them to gather records related to Wade, and that authorities have not sought any records from her congressional office or personal records.

"We won't do anything to impede with what they're trying to accomplish," she said of the Department of Justice. "We want to do everything to help, and we have." She also stated that she is not the target of any investigation.

The forum included Harris of Longboat Key, Collins of Tampa, Monroe of Safety Harbor, and Will McBride of Orlando. All the candidates said they support a constitutional ban on gay marriage, and all support replacing the income tax with a national sales tax.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.