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Harris easily claims GOP nomination

Published September 6, 2006

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TAMPA — As expected, U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris overcame months of problems to easily defeat three political newcomers on Tuesday to clinch the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.

But with support for her candidacy hovering at about 50 percent, and with a host of problems inside her campaign, the two-time congresswoman from the Sarasota area faces an uphill battle against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in November.

“Tonight’s a great victory for our party and for Florida,’’ Harris said just after 10:30 p.m. at her Tampa campaign headquarters. “It’s a great victory because it shows each of us that we can overcome adversity to achieve extraordinary victory.”

Harris appeared with her husband and about 100 supporters who watched returns on big-screen TVs and nibbled on a cake with a photo of her on top. After her victory speech, two little children sang a jingle they created for her campaign.

“Katherine has overcome many obstacles and beaten many, many incumbents,” said state Rep. Leslie Waters, who spent part of the day waving signs for Harris. “She’s a gutsy fighter.”

Harris’ victory comes despite problems that attracted national attention: repeated departures by high-level staffers, public criticism by party leaders and a federal investigation into her relationship with a defense contractor later convicted of bribery.

Harris led her three Republican challengers from the start and her margin of victory ended up larger than some anticipated.  

Orlando attorney Will McBride came in a distant second followed by retired Adm. LeRoy Collins of Tampa and Safety Harbor developer Peter Monroe. Each jumped into the race on the last day to qualify in May.

In recent weeks McBride and Collins appeared to be making significant strides, but the lack of time and name recognition made it unlikely they could catch up.

“The numbers aren’t looking as good as we thought,” said McBride from his party at an Orlando hotel. “It is what it is.”

Many prominent national and state Republicans tried to recruit someone else to run against Harris, who became a GOP darling for her role as Florida secretary of state during the 2000 presidential recount. Now, they have taken the unheard of approach of declaring Nelson the winner months before Election Day.

At one time, political experts considered this year’s Senate race in Florida a prime chance for Republicans to unseat Nelson, the last statewide elected Democrat who is considered by many to be vulnerable.

Duffy said Nelson, first elected six years ago, is a “very lucky man” who dodged a bullet.

National party leaders, including those at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which doles out high-powered support and millions of dollars, are not expected to spend money and energy on Harris in a tough election year for Republicans across the nation.

Nelson’s campaign has about $12-million in the bank — more than any senator facing re-election except Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. Harris has just $2.2-million, and that’s after pumping in $3-million of her own money.

“I look forward to...spending the next six years continuing to fight for the people of Florida in the United States Senate,” Nelson said in a statement.

In a recent St. Petersburg Times poll,  60 percent said they would vote for Nelson while only 25 percent would vote for Harris. Fifteen percent said they were undecided.

Harris, who has been considering a Senate campaign for years, declared her candidacy more than a year ago, talking all along as if she were the Republican nominee. She seldom mentioned her primary opponents, even when asked about them, and aired a TV commercial calling Nelson a liberal do-nothing senator who does not represent the majority of Floridians.

“Tonight I say to Bill Nelson, come home Bill, enough is enough,’’ Harris said to cheers.

Harris’ win Tuesday “comes down to Harris is the known quantity,’’ said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Many core supporters remained with Harris because of her fairly reliable conservative views, support of President Bush during the bitter recount and her ability to hold her head high during years of enormous, unrelenting criticism.

Harris’ three opponents agreed on most key issues and instead tried to distinguish themselves from Harris by questioning her ethics, voting record and electability. Many times, though, they ended up attacking each other, which did little to make inroads on Harris’ lead.

Harris has run an unusual campaign — making controversial comments about religion, avoiding the media and failing to show up at forums with her primary challengers.

“I accept the people’s decision,” Collins said. “You do the best with all you got.”
McBride said he would support Harris in the general election. Collins said he was considering supporting her. Monroe

said he would not support her.  

[Last modified September 6, 2006, 07:05:29]

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