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Nelson declares victory on suspense-free night

Republican Katherine Harris calls him Tuesday to offer congratulations, marking the end of her chaotic campaign and the start of another term for her Democratic opponent.

By ANITA KUMAR, WES ALISON, and JENNIFER LIBERTO
Published November 8, 2006


ORLANDO - U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson easily won re-election on Tuesday, delivering a humiliating defeat to Rep. Katherine Harris whose chaotic campaign was shunned by even her own party.

The only suspense on Tuesday was how massive Nelson's margin of victory would be over Harris, a nationally recognized figure best known for her role in helping George Bush secure the presidency in the 2000 recount.

At 8:15 p.m., with Nelson's lead over Harris hovering around 20 percent - a certifiable landslide - his staff declared victory. About 45 minutes later, Nelson took a congratulatory call from Harris.

A crowd of 250 gathered at the Embassy Suites in Orlando chanted, "six more years" as Nelson, 64, took the stage.

"You all have honored me with more than anything I could have dreamed of tonight with this resounding victory," he said.

The outcome was a foregone conclusion, but the race still captured national attention for Harris' public and embarrassing mistakes and bizarre behavior.

She made controversial comments, hid from the media, repeatedly chased off campaign staffers and is still being investigated by federal authorities for her relationship with a defense contractor convicted of bribery.

About 10:15, Harris entered the Sarasota Hyatt to a standing ovation while a singer crooned My Girl.

"There have been so many things that were so hard. You all have walked through them with me," she told the crowd of almost 200 in a warm, gracious speech. "I would not turn back the hands of time for anything."

Harris, 49, who enjoys passionate support from those who respect her for her resoluteness, took a subtle dig at the "liberal media" and party leaders who snubbed her campaign.

At one time, both parties considered the race a prime chance for Republicans to unseat Nelson, the last statewide elected Democrat who was considered vulnerable. That changed when it became clear Harris would be the nominee.

Harris had long desired a Senate seat but that didn't stop national and state party leaders from trying to recruit another candidate. After they failed, they simply abandoned the race, declaring it unwinnable. Harris, a two-time congresswoman who will leave office in January, handily defeated three political newcomers in the September primary but had an uphill battle against Nelson who raised $17-million. She pledged $10-million of her money, but only put in $3.15-million.

"Florida remains something of a swing state so for any candidate in a statewide race to win with a margin this large is nothing short of impressive" said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Nelson, a first-term senator who's spent 34 years in Florida politics, has worked to craft himself as a centrist, using his advertisements and campaign speeches to preach cooperation and tout his record of working with Republicans.

Tuesday was the first political defeat for Harris, a former state legislator from Longboat Key. It's unclear what she will do now that is out of public office, though she has said she is writing a tell-all book about her beleaguered campaign and would not rule out another run for public office.