By Peter Savodnik - 02/02/06 12:00 AM EST
After months of trying to get Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) to exit the Senate race, leading Republicans appear to be coalescing around her bid to unseat Sen. Bill Nelson (D).
At a state party meeting in Orlando in mid-January, Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who Republicans earlier said opposed Harris’s candidacy, offered the candidate praise and said he would campaign for her.
Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings (R), at the same meeting, told Harris: “Katherine, go, run and win.” Jennings had earlier been mentioned as a possible Senate contender herself.
At a meeting with reporters last week, Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), chairwoman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who had sought to recruit other Republicans to enter the GOP Senate primary, called Harris a strong candidate without endorsing her. Dole’s comments were unprompted.
“It seems to me the vultures have stopped circling,” said Geoffrey Becker, a former state GOP executive director who now runs Vantage Point Strategies, a political consulting firm in Tallahassee.
“It seems like there’s been a little circling of the wagons,” he added.
Becker and other Republicans said it would not be surprising to see leading Republicans from Florida’s congressional delegation and elsewhere begin campaigning in earnest for Harris.
A campaign aide said yesterday that “we’re working on a big, several-city tour with Sean Hannity,” the conservative commentator on Fox News. A spokeswoman for Hannity could not be reached for comment.
A Florida Republican aide said he expects Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) to campaign for Harris. He added that the likelihood of one of Harris’s congressional colleagues challenging her for the GOP Senate nomination is “diminishing by the day.” Earlier, Republican Reps. Mark Foley, Tom Feeney and Dave Weldon had been mentioned as possible Senate candidates.
Republicans warn that, despite Harris’s newfound support, she faces a difficult battle: In the fourth quarter, she raised just over $1 million, including a large personal loan, compared to Nelson’s haul of nearly $2 million. The senator has more than $8 million in his war chest.
What’s more, they are quick to point out, Nelson has a strong track record, having been in politics for 30 years and in that time having lost only one election, to Lawton Chiles in a gubernatorial primary. Chiles went on to win the general election.
These Republicans contend that party leaders are resigned to Harris’s candidacy but do not enthusiastically support it. One GOP aide in Washington said: “You have to be realistic. I don’t think anybody thinks that race is winnable.”
David Johnson, a GOP pollster who has closely tracked the Senate race in Florida, said Republicans were uniting behind Harris to preempt a disaster at the polls in November.
If Harris gets slaughtered, Johnson said, it could seriously affect other races for governor, Cabinet seats and the state Legislature. Losing those races could hurt GOP hopes of winning Florida in the 2008 presidential election, many Republicans say.
Johnson said Republicans view Florida as a second-tier Senate race, behind Missouri, Ohio, Washington, West Virginia and elsewhere.
Johnson and Becker, however, warned that Harris should not be written off. “The one thing about Katherine Harris, she’s always proven everyone wrong before,” Johnson said.
Bush, for example, backed Harris’s GOP rival when she ran for secretary of state in 1998. Harris won that race, going on to play a leading role in the 2000 Florida presidential recount.
Becker said that the recent death of Harris’s father might have inspired her to run harder and not bow out of the race.
Nelson’s pollster, David Beattie, said Harris had earned the respect of many Republicans by weathering months of quiet but intense opposition, from the White House to the state party. Other Republicans agreed that Harris had endeared herself to local officials, adding that, at a certain point, Republicans would have no choice but to get behind her.
“She’s a viable Senate candidate,” Beattie said. “She’s going to be able to raise the money. She has nationwide name recognition. There’s only a few people in politics who have the name recognition she has.”