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Senate campaign is quiet, too quiet

It’s not exactly the breakneck campaigning expected from candidates in a high-profile, statewide race in a huge, diverse state like Florida.

Published October 29, 2006


ORLANDO — It’s close to Election Day, but U.S. Senate candidates Bill Nelson and Katherine Harris don’t appear to be all that busy.

Thursday, Nelson has two events — one more than a typical day. Harris’ schedule lists no public events.

Friday, Nelson has no public events while Harris participates in what is supposed to be a closed candidates’ forum at a private company. (Reporters are reluctantly allowed in when company officials realize her campaign has put it on her public schedule.)

Saturday, both list a single event: speaking at an American Legion convention in Orlando.

It’s not exactly the breakneck campaigning expected from candidates in a high-profile, statewide race in a huge, diverse state like Florida.

Sometimes, it’s so slow on the campaign trail that it’s difficult to find the candidates. They can go entire days with no public events.

This year’s campaign features:
No celebrities or big-name endorsements.
No charter planes or bus tours around the state,
No huge rallies, debate parties or volunteers gathered at campaign stops.

In previous years, candidates were out from morning to night, hitting six or more events a day as Election Day approached.

In 2000, Nelson and his Republican opponent Bill McCollum crisscrossed the state, campaigning at small and large gatherings up until the election. Six weeks before the election, Nelson took reporters on a three-day swing through the Panhandle that included 15 public events, including one that started at 6:30 a.m. In 2004, an exhausted Mel Martinez once pleaded with staff to ease up on his schedule. He later lost his voice.

A prime that’s past

At one time, both parties considered this year’s race a prime chance for Republicans to unseat the last statewide elected Democrat. That changed when it became clear Harris would be the GOP nominee despite efforts to recruit others. Many Republicans simply abandoned the race, declaring it unwinnable.

Nelson, who has amassed $17-million in contributions, faces someone 26 points down in the polls with so little money she isn’t airing TV ads — unheard of in a major race in a major state.

The result: Nelson doesn’t need to campaign all that much. At a recent political gathering at an Orlando park, a supporter greeted a relaxed Nelson, saying “How’d you get so lucky?”

“If you’re winning, why would you go out there and engage the opponent?’’ said Doug McAlarney, a Republican consultant not involved in the race. “He doesn’t want to make any mistakes. He just wants to coast to victory.”

So where’s Harris? She would never just give up — though indications are she’s going to lose big. Harris, who has repeatedly made headlines for a series of public problems, simply doesn’t want to call any more attention to herself.

Sometimes, Harris’ schedule lists few or no public events, though it turns out she is actually campaigning, choosing to tell only local supporters.

On Oct. 19, when she listed no public events Harris actually was in the Panhandle, speaking at a reception in Jackson County and a rally in Panama City.

It’s an odd strategy for a politician desperately in need of votes.

Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate campaigns for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said Harris doesn’t want to risk having reporters around in case there’s a paltry turnout (which has happened before while TV cameras were rolling) or she makes another mistake.

Harris refused to comment. Her staff did not return messages.

One a day

Nelson’s public events have averaged out to fewer than one each day with many days devoted solely to interviews with newspaper editorial boards. His campaign points out that some events, such as usually closed fundraisers, are not listed on his schedule.

“I assume nothing,’’ Nelson says to anyone who mentions the polls.

He insists he is working nonstop and that anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t carefully examined his schedule.

Nelson sticks to issues with broad appeal including affordable prescription drugs for seniors, development of alternative energy sources, preventing North Korea from creating nuclear weapons. He rarely, if ever, mentions his opponent.

At the American Legion convention, Nelson spoke about changing the law affecting veterans’ survivors and disability benefits. “I will continue to fight with everything I have until we can correct this inequity,” he said to applause.

Harris sticks with small friendly conservative crowds, GOP executive committees, Republican women’s clubs and church groups where she attacks Nelson as a do-nothing liberal who wants to raise taxes, coddle illegal immigrants and undermine traditional values. Her strategy hasn’t changed much since the primary when she was wooing Republicans. In the general election, she’ll need more than that in a state where registered Democrats and independents outnumber Republican voters.

Harris also has used her notoriety as Florida secretary of state during the bitter 2000 recount to snag national interviews on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel and local and Christian radio stations.

On what  is always expected to be a busy day — the day before the primary — Harris’ campaign refused to say what she was doing. When reporters asked Harris what she did that day, she responded that had given seven speeches.
Why weren’t the speeches public?

“They weren’t not public,’’ she quipped. “I was speaking in public.”

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

[Last modified October 29, 2006, 17:26:11]

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