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You'd think there wasn't a Senate race

For such a high-profile contest, the absence of candidate names on cars and in yards is striking.

Published August 31, 2006

TAMPA — In these final days leading to Florida’s primary, navy blue signs for Charlie Crist and Tom Gallagher dot countless GOP campaign forums and political mixers. Signs for other Republicans running statewide are almost as plentiful.

But in one of the most high-profile races, the Republican contest for U.S. Senate, the yard signs and bumper stickers are largely and noticeably absent.

“It’s very odd,” said Mike Miller, a Florida fundraiser who has worked in the last three Senate races. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

In a primary where candidates generally agree on many of the key issues, a strong grass roots effort is considered crucial to creating momentum, building name recognition and, in the end, gathering votes. Races are won and lost at this level.

Front-runner Katherine Harris has had far more success than her opponents at this ground level form of campaigning, but not anywhere near where she was in previous campaigns.

The three other candidates — retired Adm. LeRoy Collins of Tampa, Orlando lawyer Will McBride and Safety Harbor developer Peter Monroe — are political newcomers who didn’t have the time and money to build a network around the state.

“I don’t think any of them has a grass roots campaign,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant not involved in the race. “They don’t have the organizational umph. … There’s nothing.”

Specifically, there’s no army of staffers and volunteers in political T-shirts working events across the state, doling out bumper stickers and brochures.

Instead, the candidates themselves stop by as many political events as they can and send their spouses and adult children to others.

“We’re basically cramming two years into two months,” McBride said. “We all know this isn’t going to be won by yard signs or bumper stickers.”

The governor’s race was always expected to overshadow the Senate race this year. Nevertheless, it’s remarkable that a statewide race involving such a prestigious and influential job has generated so little buzz.

“People are putting their energy into the governor’s race or other races,” said Brian Ballard, a Republican fundraiser in Tallahassee. “It is a huge race — but there’s not a whole lot of optimism.”

Political experts say opponents could have built up a grass roots campaign to chip away at Harris’ lead. But instead, each is putting his money into something else.

McBride began airing TV ads on Saturday. Collins ran statewide radio ads for a week and started another round this week. Monroe mailed brochures to 1-million registered Republicans.

In the meantime, Harris is still expected to win the GOP nomination despite a series of missteps that might have made her much more vulnerable.

In the general election, the race was once considered extremely competitive. Now even those at the national parties expect the seat to remain with Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.

Since Harris, a congresswoman from the Sarasota area, declared her candidacy more than a year ago, she has had one problem after another, including repeatedly losing the core of her staff, making it that much more difficult to organize volunteers and reach across the state. Still, she has about five staffers in various areas around the state and sends supporters regular e-mails encouraging them to volunteer, erect yard signs and tell their friends about her.

State Sen. Mike Bennett, who represents the same area of the state as Harris, said grass roots campaigning has always been one of her strengths but that it has diminished in the past year.

“There’s no excitement,” said Bennett, who supports Harris but is not involved in her campaign. “When you get that kind of negative press, they don’t want to wave signs. … Everyone wants to be on a winning team.”

Republicans including Florida Gov. Jeb Bush tried to recruit someone to run against Harris but were not successful. Instead, three relatively unknown candidates with no experience running for public office jumped in on the last day to qualify.

Experts and seasoned politicians including Attorney General candidate Bill McCollum, who had someone handing out campaign information at a recent Hillsborough Republican event, says it takes years to establish a grass roots campaign apparatus. It takes a paid staff and a network of volunteers.

 It was only three months ago that Collins, McBride and Monroe started their campaigns.

They struggled to find paid staffers so late in the political season and generally have no staffers outside their headquarters.

“Do we have a person responsible for every county in Florida? No.” Monroe said.

“We don’t have that type of organization,” Collins said.

Instead, they are concentrating on voting blocs like veterans or the religious right and on certain areas of the state, mostly Central Florida, where all four candidates live and work.

Recent polls show Harris holds a commanding lead but a huge number, almost half of the people, are still undecided.

Pollster Tom Eldon, who worked on a St. Petersburg Times poll, said the number of people still undecided is remarkably high.

“They are still looking for the one that isn’t her,” he said.

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

[Last modified August 31, 2006, 22:39:05]

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