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Florida Legislator Won't Take On Harris in Race for U.S. Senate

May 11, 2006|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A popular state legislator conceded Wednesday that he lacked the "fire in the belly" to challenge fellow Republican Katherine Harris for a U.S. Senate seat, apparently clearing the way for the beleaguered poster girl of the 2000 presidential recount to challenge Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson.

State Speaker of the House Allan G. Bense had been courted by Gov. Jeb Bush and other Florida Republican Party stalwarts to make a primary bid against Harris, but he said that he wasn't up for the fight or the fundraising.

Only two days earlier, the governor had bestowed what political analysts thought to be the kiss of death on Harris' campaign by saying, "I just don't believe she can win."

And President Bush, the governor's brother, gave Harris a cold shoulder at a party campaign event in Tampa on Tuesday, an awkward encounter made all the more obvious by her clinging to his hand after a perfunctory greeting.

Harris has been polling double digits behind Nelson after embarrassing defections from her staff and the disclosure that she accepted $32,000 in illegal campaign contributions during her 2004 campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives from a defense contractor who pleaded guilty to bribing former U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe).

Harris rose to national attention after the dead-heat 2000 presidential vote count in Florida when, as secretary of state, she certified the results giving George Bush a whisper-thin lead over Democrat Al Gore to take Florida's electoral votes and the White House.

The 49-year-old, beloved by conservatives and the religious right, has maintained she was only applying the law and doing her job, but a perception has persisted among voters on both sides that she helped steer victory to Bush.

GOP strategists, already worried about Bush's slumping approval ratings and the public's mounting opposition to the Iraq war, reportedly feared Harris' candidacy would mobilize independents and dissuade moderate Republicans from voting.

Bense, 54, had deflected calls for him to challenge Harris during the legislative session that ended last week, saying he was too busy to analyze his prospects. Five days into the recess, though, he concluded it wasn't the right move for him or the party.

"You have to have the fire in the belly, you have to be energized, and I'm a little tired right now," Bense of Panama City told reporters here. He acknowledged that it was "hard to say no" to the governor, who he described as one of the most powerful men in the country.

Having to run in a contested primary and then against Nelson in November would have required a fundraising effort that would be "ugly at best," Bense said, estimating he would need from $18 million to $25 million.

Harris, in her second term as a congresswoman representing the Sarasota area, has encountered fundraising problems in the chilly political waters of the midterm elections. She announced this year that she planned to use the $10 million she inherited from her father, a wealthy banker who died in January, to finance a bid for the Senate that he would have wanted her to see through to victory.

In a statement shortly after Bense announced his decision, Harris applauded him as a respected friend whom she looked forward to working with to defeat Nelson.

"My candidacy is about being a fighter and a strong independent advocate for Florida. People are tired of politics as usual," she said, adding that although she considers herself "a proud and loyal Republican," she votes her conscience on what is right for her state and the nation.

Florida Democrats described Bense's decision to stay out of the race as Republicans acknowledging that they didn't have a candidate who could beat the moderate Nelson, who has held public office for 34 years and is spearheading a drive against federal proposals to extend oil drilling off Florida's Gulf Coast.

Candidates have until the close of business Friday to file for federal races. No other Republicans of Harris' stature are known to be contemplating a challenge, said Luis Navarro, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party.

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