- The Washington Times - Monday, April 1, 2002

VENICE, Fla. To challenge Secretary of State Katherine Harris for an open congressional seat in Republican-dominated southwest Florida, Jan Schneider last week secured her first voting bloc: the Hillary Rodham Clinton Fan Club.
The 54-year-old Washington lawyer won't say what brought her from a prospering practice in the District of Columbia to Sarasota, except to acknowledge that she, like many here, has been something of a snowbird, visiting her family in the winter months regularly.
What she will emphasize is that Mrs. Harris, the presumptive Republican nominee for the 13th Congressional District seat and a heroic figure to Republicans for her role in the Election 2000 fracas, would be a polarizing figure on Capitol Hill.
"Katherine Harris is divisive, and this district doesn't need that," Miss Schneider told the Hillary fan club members, gathered last week at a Perkins Restaurant for its monthly meeting. "If she goes to Washington, she will undermine all collegiality."
So the next step for Miss Schneider is calling her friend and former Yale Law School classmate Bill Clinton to make a fund-raising appearance.
A dogged determination to sink Mrs. Harris has drawn three candidates to seek the Democratic nomination. In addition to Miss Schneider, there is Candice McElyea, a 27-year-old TV news reporter, and Charles McKenzie, a 45-year-old public school teacher and the Florida coordinator of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.
Miss Schneider appears the favorite at this point, and her informal talk with the Hillary fan club served her well. In between effusive praise of their hero, Mrs. Clinton, the 10 persons gathered all spoke of the upcoming race with vigor and optimism.
Their dislike of Mrs. Harris starts with the political but quickly extends into the personal.
"She was a lapdog for the Republicans," said Jan Findley, a club member proudly wearing a T-shirt with a picture of the former first lady. "I can't even use strong enough language to describe how badly we want to beat her."
But with the solidly liberal political affiliations of all three candidates, there appears little chance for any of them to make a dent on Election Day in this bastion of Republicanism.
In Sarasota County, the principal county in the district, 41 of 42 elected offices are held by Republicans, and registered Republicans outnumer registered Democrats by 116,000 to 69,000.
"Why anyone would want to take on Katherine Harris in this district, or why Democrats would want to spend money trying, is beyond me," said Tramm Hudson, chairman of the Sarasota Republican Party.
But Democrats remain optimistic.
"There will be a factor similar to Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign," said Bob Poe, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. "It will be the anybody-but-Katherine-Harris vote."
But it will take money even to remain competitive, since Mrs. Harris has promised to raise $2 million. Enter Mr. Clinton.
"He's worth a lot, even with the sleaze factor," Miss Schneider said, heading at dusk down Tamiami Trail in her maroon Cadillac.
She weaved between slow-moving retiree drivers, who helped form one of the largest retiree voting bloc in the country. Some still carried "Bush/Cheney" bumper stickers left over from the bitter Florida recount wars.
Miss Schneider knows she has a tough battle and is ready to cash in all her chips, even those that might rankle potential crossover votes.
"Hey, Bill Clinton brings in people; he makes them pay attention," she said.
Mrs. Harris anticipated a concerted effort to retire her from the political battlefield, and she has gamely fielded hostility from both the national media and the Democrats.
"Actually, I wish I could get a cut of all the money the Democrats have made using my name," Mrs. Harris said. "The Democrats said I would be a national punching bag. I realize that the media have made me a caricature. But in my district, people know me; they know who I am."
So while Miss Schneider has "friend of Bill-and-Hil'' status, the other Democratic hopefuls have their own star-struck visions.
Miss McElyea promised she will approach activist/actor Alec Baldwin at next week's Florida Democratic Party convention and request an appearance here on her behalf. Mr. McKenzie has asked Mr. Jackson for some help.
All of the political celebrity in the world won't help, Mrs. Harris said.
"The politics of personal destruction have never worked in my district," she said.
Nonetheless, Miss McElyea is already taking shots at the Republican candidate.
"I interviewed her two or three times when I was a reporter," said Miss McElyea, who voted for Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore.
Her unbiased impression of Mrs. Harris from her journalist days?
"It was unfair for her to control so much of the 2000 election for George Bush."
Mr. McKenzie maintains that despite their fervor to defeat her, Democrats need to do more than just run against Mrs. Harris.
"To take on a hero is impossible," he said. "You can't fight the people's hero. We really can't focus on that idea. We have to have ideas of our own."


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