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Florida Primary Showing Bodes Ill for Harris

Against three political unknowns, the onetime GOP star gets 49% of the vote in Senate bid.

September 06, 2006|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Rep. Katherine Harris, the controversial one-time Republican hero, collected less than half the party's vote Tuesday in winning her Senate primary race against three political unknowns, foreshadowing a tough November face-off with Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson.

Harris' 49% showing reflected her growing unpopularity within the party after a campaign replete with gaffes and questions about her integrity. Nelson, who had no primary challenger, leads in opinion polls by 40 percentage points and has amassed a $16-million war chest -- twice the amount of Harris' contributions.

In the hotly contested race to replace Gov. Jeb Bush, the costliest in Florida history, moderate Republican Charlie Crist ran away with the primary with 64% of the vote over 33% for challenger and religious-right choice Tom Gallagher.

In the Democratic contest, Rep. Jim Davis outpolled state Sen. Rod Smith 47% to 41%, despite an eleventh-hour spending blitz by the state's powerful sugar lobby on behalf of the underdog.

The four men seeking to succeed Bush in the governor's mansion spent more than $30 million, on top of lavish outlays for attack ads by soft-money supporters.

Crist's decisive victory suggests that Florida Republicans have moved toward the political center, as Gallagher cast himself as the more conservative choice, campaigning on his staunch opposition to abortion, legalized gay unions, stem cell research and stricter gun controls.

But Florida voters rate those issues of less importance than education, immigration and the economy, and Gallagher's attempts to label Crist a closet liberal apparently failed to sway them.

Crist and Gallagher had cast themselves as fitting successors to the conservative Bush, although Crist had criticized the governor for intervening in the right-to-die case of Terri Schiavo, a brain-dead stroke victim whose husband had sought to end life support after 15 years.

In the Democratic gubernatorial contest, Davis lost some of his early lead over Smith in the final weeks as the state's sugar giants spent millions in support of the little-known state legislator. As head of the agriculture committee, Smith, who has backed looser environmental protection for the Everglades, had a legislative track record the cane growers preferred to the more environmentally oriented Davis.

The party front-runner also was thought to have lost some ground among black voters after Smith reminded them that Davis had refused as a state legislator in 1990 to back compensation for two wrongfully convicted black men who served 12 years, nine of them on death row, before another man confessed to the 1963 killings of two white men.

Although it has been 16 years since that vote and some state civil rights leaders continue to support him, Davis could see the issue come back to haunt him in the general election campaign against Crist, who as state attorney general has sought overdue justice in a number of high-profile racial cases.

A poll last week by Strategic Vision put Crist ahead of both potential Democratic challengers but with a better lead over Davis. The three-day poll of 1,200 likely voters, with a 3-percentage-point margin of error, forecast that Crist would outpoll Davis 49% to 41%, while the Republican would garner 48% against 43% for Smith.

Harris faced considerable opposition within her party, but the three political unknowns challenging her canceled each other out.

Reflecting how far the former secretary of state has fallen in her fellow Floridians' esteem since her role in certifying the 2000 presidential vote in favor of George W. Bush, two of the three newcomers managed to draw double-digit support.

Attorney Will McBride had 30% of the votes and retired Navy Adm. LeRoy Collins Jr. picked up 15% with a campaign on which he spent less than $200,000. A fourth Republican hopeful, developer Peter Monroe, got about 5%.

Harris retreated behind her comfortable lead in the last days of campaigning, making only one meet-and-greet appearance over Labor Day weekend in the safe conservative territory of Miami's Little Havana. She gave no interviews while McBride and Collins barnstormed the state and hit the airwaves.

Torrential rain throughout the holiday weekend kept supporters for all candidates away from rallies and also hurt turnout at the polls, which was as low as 14% in some counties.

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