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Harris' chance to change minds

GOP's Senate candidate gets two debates to make up ground to Nelson.

By ANITA KUMAR and WES ALLISON
Published October 23, 2006


After a slew of public campaign gaffes, it's to be expected that most people tuning into tonight's first U.S. Senate debate will be more focused on Katherine Harris than Bill Nelson.

Harris, a Republican congresswoman from the Sarasota area who is trailing in polls, is under far more pressure than Democrat Nelson, an incumbent who has endured the scrutiny of a live televised debate before.

With two weeks before the Nov. 7 election, the debate offers Harris one of the most critical chances of the race to present a positive, moderate image to a broad, bipartisan section of voters.

"It's important to me," Harris said last week. "It's been important to me since Day 1."

But Harris risks falling further behind if she stumbles on some of the problems she had earlier in the campaign - a tenuous grasp of facts, an uneven temperament and controversial religious statements.

Political experts say Harris' goal should be to compare and contrast her record with Nelson's in a straightforward way, using specific examples. She should do that, they say, without attacking him or reciting her standard line on the stump that dubs him a "do-nothing liberal."

Harris needs to do that while looking and acting professional. She often succeeds at that in smaller, friendly groups but occasionally says or does the wrong thing, which then dogs her for weeks.

"She could really help herself by looking like a statesman, acting like a statesman," said Doug McAlarney, a Republican consultant not involved in the Senate race.

Jim Dornan, Harris' first campaign manager, said Harris has improved her public speaking in recent weeks but still needs to be more moderate in her views to have any hope of attracting Democrats and independents.

The debates may be the only chance some voters have to see Harris. She has not aired any TV ads during the general election and continues to appear in front of smaller, conservative groups. Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate campaigns for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, a political newsletter in Washington, said candidates need a memorable moment to change a voter's mind - such as vice presidential contender Sen. Lloyd Bentsen telling his opponent, Sen. Dan Quayle, in 1988: "I knew Jack Kennedy ... Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

"Unless you have that memorable moment ... those who don't support you hear what they want to hear. So you've got to make a reasonable splash," Duffy said.

But it may already be too late for Harris.

"She's at the point where they don't have a lot of reasons to give her another look," said Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant who is not involved in the Senate race.

Nelson garnered 57 percent and Harris 31 percent in a Mason-Dixon poll released Thursday. Nelson has been consistently ahead by at least 15 points since Mason-Dixon began polling nearly two years ago.

Harris said she's eager for the debate so she can show voters what Nelson is really like.

"Bill Nelson claims to be a moderate, and his voting record reflects differently," she said. "I feel he's very much protected by the liberal media."

Political experts say Nelson simply must avoid a major mistake and appear calm and relaxed at the debate, even if Harris makes accusations against him.

Nelson typically has a strong command of issues, but he doesn't radiate the charisma many other statewide officials do. That is often a liability, but in this case his low-key style may be a plus if Harris tries to bait him.

Mo Elleithee, a Democratic consultant with experience in Florida, said he would advise Nelson to avoid attacking Harris, "but I wouldn't suggest he be a wallflower, either."

"He has to be an active participant," he said.

The one-hour debate will be held at Nova Southeastern University in Broward County.

The second and final debate is scheduled for Nov. 1 at 7 p.m. in Orlando, to be broadcast on NBC stations statewide.

A panel of three Florida journalists will ask questions at tonight's debate: Anthony Man of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Paige St. John of Gannett's Florida Capital Bureau, and Cory Reiss of the New York Times Regional Media Group. Linda O'Bryon, senior vice president and executive editor of the PBS series Nightly Business Report, will moderate and ask questions submitted beforehand by the public.

Nelson, who set aside two days to prepare, said he anticipates the second one will be more difficult because it will be less structured. Moderator Tim Russert of NBC News is known to keep after candidates if they don't answer the first time.

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

To watch tonight

The debate will be televised live at 8 on all Florida public television stations, including WEDU-Ch. 3 in the bay area. It will also be simulcast on Florida Public Radio and Web cast at www.beforeyouvote.org.

Watch for this

Experts say Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Katherine Harris will be more successful if they strive for these goals during the debate:

Bill Nelson

- Don't get flustered, even if Harris makes outrageous accusations.

- Avoid his somewhat wooden demeanor and appear relaxed.

- Give clear, concise answers and don't get bogged down in details.

Katherine Harris

- Don't attack. Instead, compare and contrast.

- Move to the middle. Be more moderate in answers on issues.

- Look and act professional.