Politely on the attack

A debate wasn’t the aggressive faceoff some expected, but Florida’s candidates for U.S. senator don’t shy from jabs.

Published October 24, 2006

DAVIE — Trailing by double digits, Katherine Harris tried to revive her troubled campaign for U.S. Senate on Tuesday night by criticizing opponent Bill Nelson in their first debate.

But the one-hour exchange ended up largely muted and polite despite expectations that the lopsided standing of the race would give their first televised faceoff an aggressive tone.

Nelson, the Democrat incumbent from Orlando, and Harris, a Republican congresswoman from the Sarasota area, differed on topics ranging from oil drilling to the war in Iraq to the Medicare prescription drug plan.

The debate was broadcast on Florida public television stations from Nova Southeastern University in Broward County.

Harris repeatedly emphasized that a vote for her would be a vote for lower taxes, smaller government and traditional values. Nelson disputed her occasional allegations but chose to talk more about his bipartisan role in Congress while quoting former President John F. Kennedy.

Both Nelson and Harris appeared well-prepared on a variety of topics, including foreign affairs, though each of them failed to answer some questions.

The sharpest exchange of the debate came when they were asked about illegal contributions both have received in the past. Both have said they didn’t know the donations were illegal.

Harris said she returned the money and accused Nelson of failing to do the same.

“He has never chosen to voluntarily return them,” she said. “Why should voters trust me more than Sen. Nelson? Because I will take a stand and do that at my own demise.”

Nelson shot back: “That’s simply not true,” saying he had returned the money.

The two candidates were asked the most questions about Iraq.

Both Harris and Nelson support staying in Iraq until the nation is stable, with no set departure date.
Harris said repeatedly that the United States should not “cut and run.”

“Defeat is not an option,” she said. “We must stand firm.”

Nelson, however, has voted to require presidential progress reports on troop withdrawal.

“What’s the best chance we have to stabilize Iraq? It’s that political solution, but you can’t do it alone cowboy style,” Nelson said. “You have to get the rest of the world involved.”

One of their biggest differences was on oil drilling.

Both Harris and Nelson agreed this year to deals in Congress that would allow some oil drilling off the coast of Florida. But neither answered questions about whether they would continue to support the deal now that gas prices are going down.

“You can’t drill your way out of the problem so you have to go to the alternative sources,” Nelson said.
But Harris said more than alternative sources are needed. She criticized Nelson for voting against drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. He “continues to vote against exciting opportunities like that,” she said.
The candidates also were asked several questions about hurricanes and insurance.

Harris said she has filed the most comprehensive bill to fix the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which she said would do more than “rearrange the deck chairs.”

Nelson said FEMA has already improved and is no longer “a political dumping crowd.”
Harris and Nelson both support a national catastrophe fund, funded by insurers, to help insurance companies cover major disasters. They also back tax-exempt personal savings accounts for disaster expenses.

Nelson, a former Florida insurance commissioner, said he first proposed a national fund in 1997.
“The big one is coming,” he said. “There’s got to be some mechanism for a federal backup.”

But Harris, who repeatedly attacked Nelson for helping contribute to an increase in insurance prices, continued with her attacks Tuesday.

“It took five years to get him to come to the table” and try to come up with a solution in Congress, Harris said.
Just two weeks before the Nov. 7 election, the debates offer Harris one of the most critical chances of the race to influence a broad, bipartisan section of voters.

Polls have consistently shown Nelson leading Harris by double digits. Nelson garnered 57 percent and Harris 31 percent in a Mason-Dixon poll released Thursday.

A second and final debate moderated by Tim Russert of Meet the Press is scheduled for Nov. 1 at 7 p.m. in Orlando, to be broadcast on NBC stations statewide.

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