Mark Weisenmiller

TAMPA, Florida, Sep 19 2006 (IPS) — Katherine Harris, the former Florida secretary of state who played a key role in the hotly contested U.S. presidential vote recount in 2000, is now running a quixotic campaign against a Democratic incumbent for one of the state’s two seats in the U.S. Senate.

With less than two months before Election Day on Nov. 7, many observers say her campaign has been a minestrone of mayhem. Following are some examples why, all of which occurred this year.

March: Harris, 49, announces during an appearance on the conservative news channel Fox that despite poor poll numbers and tepid support from her own party, she will stay in the Senate race against Democrat Bill Nelson and also contribute 10 million dollars of her own money – which she inherited from her father, a retired banker who died in January – to her campaign.

April: Florida Governor John Ellis “Jeb” Bush, the most powerful Republican in state politics and brother to the president, hurts Harris’ campaign by indicating that he favours Republican State House Speaker Allan Bense to run against Nelson. (Bense decides not to do so). Meanwhile, a wave of resignations threatens to swamp her campaign. “I’ve never seen staffers go like this,” says David Johnson, a Republican pollster and consultant. “It’s just imploding.”

May: Harris is questioned by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents in connection with a probe of defence contractor Mitchell Wade’s dealings with Harris. Wade is later convicted of bribery. Harris tells reporters that she did nothing illegal in her meetings with Wade, who had given 32,000 dollars in contributions to her campaign.

June: In a letter to supporters, she declares that Sen. Nelson is “weak on immigration” because he favours a bill that would make citizenship for both so-called guest workers and undocumented immigrants easier to procure. Harris does this despite the fact that the bill was to be the legal legacy of U.S. Senator Mel Martinez of Florida, one of her few Republican supporters.

August: Harris posts several political endorsements from fellow Republican lawmakers on her campaign web site. However, some of those listed claim that they never backed her and the endorsements are removed.

In most polls, Nelson has a 30-point lead over Harris. One poll conducted earlier this year gave Nelson a 38-point lead. More than 30 Harris campaign staff members have left their jobs. Her election team is currently on its third campaign manager.

Neither President George W. Bush nor Florida Governor Jeb Bush has given their full- hearted support to Harris’ election campaign. The reluctance of the president to back Harris is somewhat unusual because it was Harris, when she was Florida’s secretary of state, who ordered a halt to the recount of votes in the state for the presidency in the winter of 2000. This move helped Bush beat then Vice President Al Gore to become president of the United States.

Finally, Harris’ controversial choice of words in a September interview with the weekly newspaper “Florida Baptist Witness”, a publication of the Florida Baptist State Convention, may have killed any chance for her to defeat Nelson.

Harris, who has often described herself as a devout Christian, told FBW editor Jim Smith that “…God is the one who chooses our rulers. And if we are the ones not actively involved in electing those godly men and women and if people aren’t involved in helping godly men in getting elected, then we are going to have a nation of secular laws.”

“If you’re not electing Christians, then in essence you are going to legislate sin,” Harris added.

Her remarks were condemned by both fellow Republicans and religious leaders. “I think the statement is so amusing that none of our congregation is taking it seriously,” Barry Silver, rabbi of the synagogue L’Dor Va-Vor in Lake Worth, Florida, told IPS. “But the sentiments behind what she said are alarming.”

Harris’s platform is based on her two terms in the House of Representatives. On U.S. military involvement in Iraq, she opposes setting a timetable for withdrawal and, as a Republican businesswoman, argues that the Iraqi people need greater economic opportunities to rebuild their own cities and country.

Harris is anti gun-control – she owns guns – and although her religious beliefs prevent her from endorsing abortion, she is pro-choice on the issue.

University of Florida Political Science Professor David Hedge told IPS that “The criticism that I see in TV reports isn’t really based on her ideology but her many mistakes and problems. Maybe it is the media’s fault for focusing on her image. But remember: The candidate is in charge of his or her image, not the media. A candidate projects an image and the image of her campaign is one of ineptness.”

Harris’ press secretary, Jennifer Marks, and Florida Republican Party chairwoman Carole Jean Jordan are positive in discussing the campaign.

“We’ve been focused on Senator Nelson all along. It’s important for the people of Florida to know that he is a liberal who is out of step with their values. Congresswoman Harris has told voters to make sure to vote for candidates who represent their values,” Marks said.

“We’re (the Florida Republican Party) happy to do some events, such as rallies and going to communities to support her, for her campaign. We’re working out the details for those events this week,” said Jordan.

Dr. Susan McManus, a political science professor and pollster at the University of South Florida in Tampa, describes Harris as “a very moral person who makes political decisions on her religious beliefs.”

“Florida is a very diverse state, so there really isn’t a cohesive Christian vote in the state. However, there is a strong conservative Christian vote in Florida and if she can convince those people to vote in November, then she may cut into Nelson’s lead,” she said.

Yet Republicanism in Florida is currently shifting away from the strident, partisan style of governing of the past five or six years to one of tolerance for at least listening to the Democrats’ views on the major issues. This is best exemplified by a tall, thin, gray-haired Republican named Charlie Christ of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Christ is the Republican candidate in the race for Florida governor. His opponent is Democratic candidate Jim Davis of Tampa, a low-key politician who best excels at the day-to-day work of legislation. Yet Christ’s version of Republicanism – favouring strong law enforcement policies but conferring with Democrats on such policies, for example -has him leading Davis for the governorship of Florida in most polls.

Katherine Harris’ campaign for the Florida U.S. Senate seat should not automatically be presumed to be doomed. Since entering politics in 1994, she has never lost an election and she has trailed opponents in polls by 30 points or more in the past.

“The key for Harris is to focus on voter turnout,” said Dr. Terri S. Fine, an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. “Democrats in this state generally have a lower voter turnout than Republicans. If that happens again this November, that could help her against Nelson.”


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