Harris meets with Rove, eyes Fla. Senate race in '06

Karl Rove, the president’s deputy chief of staff and political guru, has met twice in recent weeks with Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.), raising questions about who the White House wants to challenge Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) next year. While Harris has insisted that no administration officials have tried to discourage her from running, some Republicans in Washington and Florida say President Bush would prefer that the congresswoman stay out.
Karl Rove, the president’s deputy chief of staff and political guru, has met twice in recent weeks with Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.), raising questions about who the White House wants to challenge Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) next year.

While Harris has insisted that no administration officials have tried to discourage her from running, some Republicans in Washington and Florida say President Bush would prefer that the congresswoman stay out.
Patrick g. Ryan
Bush’s deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, has been meeting with Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.).


Harris spokesman Garrison Courtney, confirming that Rove and Harris met most recently for lunch Thursday, said they “occasionally get together to catch up on things that are going on.”

But a senior House Republican aide familiar with the Rove-Harris meetings portrayed them as strictly business, focusing on the 2006 Senate race.

Another Capitol Hill Republican suggested Rove was trying to drill home Bush’s opposition to a Harris Senate candidacy.

“The president doesn’t want her to run, short of a natural disaster,” that Republican said, adding that this was well known in GOP circles in Florida.

Referring to the 2004 election cycle — when Harris considered running for the seat vacated by Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) but was dissuaded by the White House and Senate GOP leaders — the Capitol Hill Republican said: “Nothing has changed from ’04, when they didn’t want her to run, except for the fact that it’s not George Bush’s neck on the line.”

David Johnson, chief executive officer of Strategic Vision, a Republican polling firm that recently surveyed Florida voters about the upcoming Senate race, said in an interview last month that the White House is “worried [Harris will] polarize voters again. … I think they’re worried, too, about what kind of effect it could have on the rest of the ticket.”

The senior House Republican aide added that time is of the essence.

Harris, the aide said, has “the luxury of being able to wait” to announce her candidacy because, presumably, she wouldn’t have trouble raising money. Other Republicans, by contrast, the aide said, must begin building a campaign organization now.

“The White House understands that as long as Katherine keeps flirting with the idea, she’s keeping other serious candidates out of the race,” the aide said. “I think if they are taking action to get her out of the race now, it’s for that very reason, that other candidates aren’t coming forward.”

Harris plans to announce her Senate intentions by summer, Courtney said.

A White House spokeswoman did not return several phone calls seeking comment.

Harris is celebrated by Republicans — and reviled by Democrats — for her role as Florida’s secretary of state during the 2000 presidential recount. She won her first term in the 13th District, in central Florida, in 2002.

After the congresswoman met with Rove several weeks ago, the senior House Republican aide said, “she came out of that meeting a little more enthusiastic” about entering the Senate race.

The aide said it was unclear what the White House hoped to convey during last week’s meeting, although the aide made it clear that “Rove had asked to meet with [Harris].”

Courtney, Harris’s spokesman, avoided delving into the specifics of the Thursday lunch, saying only that Rove and Harris “just talked in general,” touching on, among other things, “local politics in Florida.”

Courtney also backed up his boss, saying the White House has done nothing to discourage Harris from running. But GOP leaders have done nothing to encourage her candidacy, either. In 2003, conversely, Republicans paved the way for Mel Martinez (R) to run for Graham’s seat.

The congresswoman, Courtney continued, is absorbed by her work on the House Homeland Security Committee and her effort to get an anti-child-predator bill passed, among other issues.

Other Republicans who have voiced interest in challenging Nelson have been waiting for Harris to make up her mind, Florida Republicans said.

Possible contenders include Florida’s Attorney General Charlie Crist and Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, Reps. Mark Foley and Dave Weldon, and Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings.

Being a Democrat in a state that backed Bush in 2004, Nelson is a top-tier Republican target. But Republicans in Washington and Florida fear that Harris would lose to Nelson, a fear buttressed by the poll conducted by Johnson last month.

In the poll, the congresswoman outpolled the second- and third-place Crist and Gallagher, respectively, in a possible GOP primary but lost to Nelson in a potential general-election matchup, garnering 39 percent versus Nelson’s 46.

Crist and Gallagher, meanwhile, came within three and two points, respectively, of the Democratic senator in potential matchups.

One variable that will shape the GOP primary field is the gubernatorial contest, which coincides with the Senate race. Some of the possible Senate candidates, including Crist, have indicated they would rather succeed Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who is term-limited.

Growing speculation about the Senate race comes at the same time that Florida has been gripped by the emotional debate surrounding Terri Schiavo, the 41-year-old, brain-damaged Florida woman recently taken off her feeding tube at the request of her husband.

Republicans said privately that the Schiavo case had put Nelson in an awkward political spot, particularly after GOP leaders on Capitol Hill sought to intervene on Schiavo’s behalf. While the Democrat doesn’t want to be accused of siding with Schiavo’s husband, Michael, and ending her life — inflaming conservatives — he also doesn’t want to support congressional action considered to be intrusive by his liberal base, Republicans said.

Nelson opposed two measures meant to save Schiavo’s life, including one co-sponsored by Martinez, but backed a third bill because it was more narrowly tailored to the case at hand, Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin called Republican talk of linking the Schiavo case with Nelson’s reelection “despicable.” Nelson’s pollster, Dave Beattie, said he doubts the Schiavo episode will have much resonance in the Senate race.