Rep. Harris Goes From GOP Darling to Liability

Times Staff Writer

She’s called for a Christian theocracy so Congress won’t “legislate sin.” She’s lost a dozen key campaign staffers in the home stretch, advertised endorsements she didn’t get and failed to pick up a single recommendation from Florida’s leading newspapers.

Rep. Katherine Harris -- the former darling of the Republican Party for her pivotal role in the 2000 presidential recount -- has stumbled so badly in her bid for the U.S. Senate that pollsters and pundits no longer focus on her longshot chances against Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson in November, but instead on the outlook for Tuesday’s primary race against virtual unknowns.

Three polls released this week all put Harris, 49, at least 16 percentage points ahead of her three Republican rivals. But with two of the challengers closing in on her, and the share of undecided voters larger than her advantage, analysts say the contest for the party’s nomination is far from over.

Attorney Will McBride and retired Navy Adm. LeRoy Collins Jr. have surged to within striking distance of Harris and have been barnstorming the state in these last days of campaigning in hopes of gaining critical mass amid deeply conflicted Republican voters.


“My message is: ‘Republicans, don’t throw in the towel. This race is not over. We can still win,’ ” McBride, 34, said as he hit the highways and airwaves with a tailwind of endorsements that Harris had expected to get.

Collins, who has collected less than $200,000 in contributions against the millions brought in by Nelson and Harris, said the huge pool of undecided voters is searching for an alternative and only now pondering what he has to offer.

“When I go and tell people I’m running for the U.S. Senate, they say they’ve never heard of me. But when I say my principal opponent is Katherine Harris, they welcome me with, ‘Thank God somebody is opposing her,’ ” said Collins, who turns 72 on Sunday.

Harris’ fortunes began to tumble more than a year ago and have lately been in free fall. After the disclosure last year that she had accepted $32,000 in illegal campaign contributions from a defense contractor who has pleaded guilty to bribing former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe), the Florida state Republican Party urged her to withdraw from the Senate race. Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, said publicly that she couldn’t beat Nelson.

Harris returned the illegal donations, but her name continued to turn up during investigations into other suspect spending by the contractor, Mitchell Wade.

Then this spring, Harris pledged on national television to invest $10 million in her campaign from an inheritance left by her father, saying he would have wanted her to fight to the end for the seat in the Senate. Her siblings reportedly challenged her right to the money, and only a fraction of it ever made it to campaign coffers.

In July, she took $100,000 of that back to renovate her Washington home -- a move that contributed to five senior staffers’ decision to resign. Among them was her third campaign manager, Glenn Hodas.

Political director Rhyan Metzler bolted this month after Harris blamed him when fewer than two dozen supporters showed up at a rally at Orlando Executive Airport. None of the party heavyweights she told the media to expect to be there were. Harris told the clutch of reporters in the nearly empty hangar that the poor turnout was because of a last-minute location change after a tree fell on another hangar. Airport officials said no such accident had occurred and that the rally was held where it was originally scheduled.

Her campaign website also posted endorsements from four Florida congressional representatives late last month, then withdrew them when the politicians said they hadn’t expressed a preference among the Republican contenders. The site’s campaign diary hasn’t been updated since May 29, and there hasn’t been a single posting to the online blog.

The Orlando Sentinel newspaper this week endorsed McBride, and urged the governor to do the same to rescue the Republicans’ chances of fielding a competitive candidate in November. State party spokesman Jeff Sadosky said the governor has said only that “he would support the eventual nominee.”

Six other major newspapers in Florida, including the Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times, have urged voters to choose Collins.

Those endorsements followed the latest controversy stirred up by Harris -- an interview she gave to the Florida Baptist State Convention for its weekly journal in which she deemed the separation of church and state “a lie we have been told” and “so wrong because God is the one who chooses our rulers.” She also told the Florida Baptist Witness that only Christians should serve in Congress because otherwise it will “legislate sin.”

That provoked angry denunciations by Jewish politicians, spurring her campaign to issue a “clarification” that she had always voted for support to Israel and expressed her “deep grounding in Judeo-Christian values.”

Harris’ current -- and fourth -- campaign communications director, Jennifer Marks, said the candidate was “unlikely to be available” for any interviews before Tuesday. She said Harris was unruffled by her diminishing poll numbers, because “we’ve said all along that the only poll that matters is the one held on election day.”

In a survey of 317 likely Republican primary voters released Thursday by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, Harris was leading with 38%, compared with 22% for McBride and 11% for Collins.

But the poll, which has a margin of error of 5.5 percentage points, also found that 24% of likely voters were undecided and that almost half of those who expressed a preference said they might change their minds.

“An undecided vote at this point is not a vote for Katherine Harris,” said Chris Ingram, one of her former communications directors who quit in July and now is heading Collins’ 11th-hour push for the GOP nomination.

Strategic Vision conducted a multiparty poll of likely voters last weekend and found Harris similarly ahead in the primary but afflicted with a 61% unfavorable rating and a 43-percentage-point deficit against Nelson if the two face off in the November general election.

Collins and McBride, who are competing for the same pool of Harris detractors in the primary, both insist their campaigns are ascendant and refuse to bow out and back the other to consolidate an anti-Harris majority. A fourth Republican in the race, developer Peter Monroe, has not polled at higher than 7%.

“If Rep. Harris had only one opponent, she might be in deep trouble,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac polling institute. “But having three candidates splitting the anti-Harris vote is a major plus for her.”