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In dark days, they love her even more

Katherine Harris diehards admire her for many things, but especially respect her fortitude under pressure.

Published August 19, 2006

TAMPA - Wherever U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris goes, they are there. At small Republican club meetings, big round-robin candidate forums or middle-of-nowhere festivals.

The diehards are there.

These are troubled times for Harris, whose campaign for the U.S. Senate has foundered on bad polls and worse publicity. But the diehards are there no matter what.

At every event, she is surrounded by a thick knot of supporters, who wear her T-shirts and stickers, pull her in for a hug, ask for a snapshot or autograph.

They are more like groupies than your average political supporters, and they can't help but gush just a little.

"She has my heart," proclaimed Ruth Coberley, 53, of Kissimmee, clad in a red, white and blue Katherine Harris for U.S. Senate T-shirt.

They love her for her fairly reliable conservative views. They love her for supporting George W. Bush. They love her for her rare combination of celebrity, charm and looks.

But mostly they love her for holding her head high during enormous, unrelenting criticism.

"I love Katherine," said Mary Todd, 64, of the Villages retirement community. "She's a little Dynamo."

Six years ago, Harris was mocked on national TV during the bitter 2000 presidential recount in Florida for her unsparing use of makeup and what some considered her weak command of elections law.

In the last year, she has been mocked again, this time for one mishap after another in her campaign. Staffers have quit en masse, a couple of times; party leaders have openly dismissed her chances; and federal investigators are looking into her relationship with a defense contractor who gave her illegal campaign contributions.

But the diehards are there.

"She is doing the same thing now as she did before," said Bob Milburn, 83, a lifelong Democrat from Winter Park who met her for the first time this week but has supported her since 2000. "The party turned against her. The newspapers turned against her. She is standing alone just like she did before."

Harris, a two-time congresswoman from Longboat Key, is fighting an uphill battle to defeat Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson this November - a race many national and state party leaders consider hopeless, though some rank-and-file Republicans don't agree.

"She's got an unbelievably loyal following," said state Sen. Mike Bennett of Bradenton, who represents the same part of the state as Harris. "They see her as an underdog who wins time after time."

In small and large campaign events around the state this week Harris was greeted like a celebrity.

At the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce Political Mingle, Harris got the loudest cheers when she and her Republican primary opponents were introduced on stage. At a small Orlando airport rally, supporters wore Harris T-shirts and waved American flags at an event where she was snubbed by Republican public officials. At the East Orange County Chamber of Commerce candidate breakfast, supporters wore her stickers and shook her hand.

It's a different, more intense passion than usually seen at political breakfasts and meetings.

"She has as much of a presence on stage as anyone I know," said Pat Roberts, a Republican lobbyist and longtime Harris friend who no longer supports her candidacy. "She's a rock star. She's not a politician."

Harris' political career has been one hard-fought race after another from state senator to secretary of state, when she defeated the incumbent backed by the governor.

Even her two races for Congress were surprisingly close.

"They think she's feisty, kind of a fighter," said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "They see her as a victim. ... She's always the smile in the face of adversity."

It's so much a part of her persona that she mentions it in every speech on the campaign trail.

"We've been down before," she told supporters this week. "We've done it before. ...If we turn our base, I'll be your next United States senator."

J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, a Republican strategist who advised Harris during the 2000 presidential recount but does not support her candidacy, said Harris supporters fall into two categories: diehard, straight-ticket Republicans and those enamored by her celebrity.

Generally, political observers say, her supporters are older, middle-class Republicans in the northern half of the state, including Tampa Bay.

Harris, once a GOP darling, now finds herself shunned by the party, though she says it's only the "party elite" who don't support her.

"We'll go to an event with 500 Republicans; 400 will have on my stickers," she said. "They're supportive. I can't explain it to you. I'm grateful. ... My ability to ignite and unite the base is there."

Harris is vying for the GOP Senate nomination along with three lesser-known Republicans - retired Adm. LeRoy Collins of Tampa, Orlando lawyer Will McBride and Safety Harbor developer Peter Monroe.

A recent St. Petersburg Times poll showed Harris holds a commanding lead with 28 percent over McBride at 11 percent, Collins at 9 percent and Monroe at 5 percent. But almost half of those polled - 47 percent - were undecided.

Pollster Kellyanne Conway, whose company works with Republicans, said Harris maintains significant advantages in having strong name recognition, millions of dollars in campaign money and grass-roots support among a core of loyal Republicans.

Conway said Harris supporters may not believe the bad news they hear about her campaign because at this point, months after the party turned its back on Harris and tried to recruit a candidate to run against her last year, they consider it all just "piling on unfairly."

Disbelieving supporters often ask Harris why the media, the party or others are against her.

"They have not abandoned Katherine Harris because they don't think Katherine Harris has abandoned them," Conway said. "If you like someone you are going to defend them and stick to them like Super Glue."

Times staff writer Alisa Ulferts and researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Anita Kumar can be reached at or 202-463-0576.

[Last modified August 19, 2006, 05:24:42]

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