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Nelson, Harris get harsh

The Republican makes little effort to reach moderates in the debate.

Published November 2, 2006

[AP photo]
Harris, left, and Nelson take questions from moderator Tim Russert, right.

ORLANDO - Now that was more like it.

After months of lopsided campaigning, with Bill Nelson cruising in the polls and Katherine Harris snapping at his heels, Florida's U.S. Senate candidates spent their last debate scrapping over taxes, character and Social Security, while making no effort to disguise their dislike for each other.

For Harris, 49, a Republican congresswoman from the Sarasota area, it was a continuation of her campaign strategy: attack Nelson as being a tax-loving liberal who wants to coddle illegal immigrants and only "claims" to be a Christian.

It was Nelson, 64, the Democratic incumbent, who changed course, dropping his usual mien of patient disdain in favor of open combat. He repeatedly hit Harris for distorting his record on taxes and social issues, while trying to portray himself as a centrist statesman who favors commonsense, bipartisan solutions over partisan rancor.

"I'm not going to let her get away with this," Nelson said early in the debate. "She has made a number of statements that are not true, and credibility has a been a problem for my opponent in this campaign."

Both candidates came prepared with facts for moderator Tim Russert, host of NBC's Meet the Press, an adroit interviewer known for finding weaknesses in candidates' positions. The debate, which took place before a live audience at the University of Central Florida, was aired live on NBC stations across the state. It offered Harris, who is trailing by more than 20 percentage points in polls, her last chance to convince voters she's a viable alternative to Nelson.

Her performance was especially critical because, unlike Nelson, she hasn't had the money to air statewide TV ads. While she was aggressive and showed a command of the facts, however, Nelson was by no means overmatched, and it's hard to believe the debate helped either candidate much.

Nor did Harris make any new attempt to appeal to moderate or swing voters, sticking with themes and issues like taxes and abortion likely to appeal to the conservative voters she has courted throughout the race.

Russert's format allowed for several questions on each topic and more in-depth answers than the debate last week on public TV. He spent a third of the debate on the war in Iraq but also asked about taxes, Social Security, Medicare prescription drugs and religion.

He opened the debate with a question for Nelson about a statement this week by Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, that seemed to suggest U.S. troops serving in Iraq are there because they didn't do well in school.

Nelson quickly condemned the statement, saying he was glad Kerry apologized and that Kerry had sent the wrong message.

U.S. troops deserve the nation's support, and "it's also important that we want to encourage young people to get into the military," he said. "This is a great career and it's certainly essential for us to have a smart, motivated and highly educated volunteer military."

Polls show voters are most worried about the war in Iraq, but it hasn't been an issue in this race, largely because both candidates believe U.S. troops must remain there until Iraq can stand on its own.

Both also agreed Wednesday night that the administration should consider a change of strategy, and Harris seemed to endorse a plan espoused by some Senate Democrats, including Nelson, to divide the county into thirds by ethnic groups.

Nelson, after pressing by Russert, also said he wouldn't have voted to give the president the authority to invade Iraq had he known Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Harris declined to answer that one, saying Congress never would have had the vote to begin with.

But Russert's attempts to push them further failed when both retreated to the comfortable lexicon of their political parties: Nelson repeated the Democratic mantra that "stay the course," as the president has famously said, is not a strategy.

Harris said that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is doing an "adequate" job and should be more flexible, but she feared the future if Democrats were allowed to "cut and run," the stock Republican talking point.

From Iraq, Russert moved to taxes. He forced Harris to defend her support of replacing the U.S. tax code - income taxes, deductions, "and all the major headaches of April 15" - with a 23 percent sales tax.

Nelson sat by smugly as Russert did his work for him, challenging the feasibility of the plan and grilling Harris on facts about taxes, like how many Floridians are too poor to pay income taxes (nearly 3-million).

Harris responded aggressively by blasting Nelson's record on taxes, pulling specific votes through the years to paint him as a taxaholic. That got Nelson fired up.

After citing a study that found the 23 percent sales tax would force most people to pay more taxes, not less, Nelson left no room for Russert to move back in. "I want to correct the record," he said quickly as Harris smiled, clearly pleased to have him on the defensive. "My opponent has said I voted against all these tax cuts - this is where the rhetoric doesn't meet the reality."

That led to how a Republican Congress and president have presided over runaway spending. Now Harris was on defense, talking about the cost of the war and terrorist attacks and hurricanes. It was Nelson's turn to lean back and smile.

The debate was nastiest when Russert pressed Harris on her comments to a Baptist publication that electing non-Christians will "legislate sin." She said she was only trying to draw distinctions between herself and Nelson.

"I can't judge his heart," she said. "But he consistently votes against everything that we hold sacred," including abortion restrictions and a ban on gay marriage.

Russert: "I'll give you a chance to respond that you claim to be a Christian."

"Tim, my faith is the essence of my being," Nelson said as Harris supporters in the room guffawed. "I choose not to wear it on my sleeve. And the scriptures tell me ... treat others like you want to be treated. There's an old saying: I'd rather see a sermon than hear one any day."


[Last modified November 2, 2006, 01:22:20]

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