Saturday, October 30, 2004

SARASOTA, Fla. — Describing the prospect of another Florida election recount — a nightmare scenario of pregnant chads, hanging chads, dimpled chads — Rep. Katherine Harris says she’s “baack.”

As Florida’s secretary of state, Mrs. Harris was at the epicenter of the 2000 presidential election, the Republican official whose job it was to certify President’s Bush’s 537-vote victory.

Mocked for her use of cosmetics during the 36-day recount battle and vilified by Democrats as a partisan with close personal ties to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Mrs. Harris has once again become a target in this battleground state.

But this time it was an angry Democrat at the wheel of a silver-colored Cadillac who nearly mowed her down Wednesday.

“That was a little unnerving,” Mrs. Harris, elected to Congress in 2002, says of the incident. “I saw his face looking at me as he was coming toward me.”

Barry Seltzer, described as a 46-year-old real estate investor, told police he was just trying to exercise his political expression and “scaring them a little” when he swerved toward the sidewalk in front of a Walgreen’s drugstore, straight at Mrs. Harris and a group of volunteers holding blue-and-red “Harris for Congress” signs.

Welcome to politics, Florida style.

One day after that close call, Mrs. Harris was back on another busy Sarasota street corner. Dressed in a designer suit with chunky black pearls and Hermes black purse, she was waving to cars rolling past her.

The 47-year-old House freshman loves campaigning on street corners. “I have it down to an art. I love to wave. I make eye contact.”

Truck drivers honk and fire engines blast their sirens. After Election Day, she plans to return to the street with signs that say, “Thank you.”

She loves going door-to-door. She loves her volunteers. But, mostly, she loves the Republican Party and all that it stands for. Earlier, Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert left his campaign trail to stump for Mrs. Harris.

The Illinois Republican exudes admiration for Mrs. Harris. He mentions her legislation that allows lower-income families to purchase a home without a down payment and her work to establish a local veteran’s cemetery.

“I rely on Katherine Harris to get things done,” Mr. Hastert tells an intimate group of supporters in the plush dining room at the Ritz Carlton hotel.

Her auburn hair is in a jaunty flip and she’s tinier (“I’m a size zero”) and less scary in real life. She has a good sense of humor, speaks with quiet confidence, and among Florida Republicans she is regarded as a modern Joan of Arc.

Her re-election in Florida’s 13th District is a shoo-in, election analysts say. Her Democratic opponent, Jan Schneider, lost to Mrs. Harris in 2002 by 10 percentage points. The latest polls show Miss Schneider — a native New Yorker who was a Yale classmate of former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton — trailing by six percentage points.

Mrs. Harris’ district includes all of Sarasota, Hardee and DeSoto counties, as well as a large portion of Manatee County and part of Charlotte County. Mrs. Harris has raised $2.2 million to Miss Schneider’s $340,000 during the campaign, making her a formidable fund raiser and opponent.

During the 2000 Florida recount, Democrats likened Mrs. Harris to Disney villainess Cruella de Vil, but that image has been replaced by a polished politico, even one who mistakenly said a terrorist plot existed to blow up the power grid in Carmel, Indiana.

She later apologized for the flub.

“I think her image is fabulous,” says Maria Beck, a 38-year-old real estate broker wearing a diamond choker. “She’s always elegant. She’s professional, well spoken and has a tremendous following. Being a woman, coming into a predominantly male-oriented political position. That alone is difficult enough. Naturally, she’s going to be the subject of all sorts of criticism. But if she has a weakness, I have not seen it.”

Growing up in Florida’s rural Polk County, young Katherine Harris was a tomboy who learned to ride horses and handle a gun. “I enjoy shooting,” says Mrs. Harris, a member of the National Rifle Association.

If liberal foes want to mow her down on the sidewalk, this is one woman who will stand her ground.

“I was frozen. I didn’t move,” she says, recounting the close encounter with the Cadillac the previous day. “I’m not afraid at all.”

Sipping a Starbucks coffee on a hotel patio table with palm trees gently swaying, Mrs. Harris sits for a spell before going back out on the sidewalks of Sarasota. She fiddles with one black pearl and a diamond earring, a gift from her second husband, Swedish businessman Anders Ebbeson. They have a family ranch in Florida and a town house on Capitol Hill.

This is not Mrs. Harris’ first trip to Washington. When she was 19, she worked as a congressional intern, but now says that the climate of sexual harassment was uncomfortable for her. “I came from a small town of Bartow, a family with real values.”

Was she ever approached? “No, but all my friends were. That’s what I found particularly terrifying. That was really hard for me. I knew I had to get out of there quickly,” she recalls with a laugh.

She says she was never offended by the “Saturday Night Live” skits, and complains that newspapers altered her photographs to make her appear like a ghoulish villain. “I would have black lipstick, blue eye shadow, eyeliner out to here.”

She is close to the Bush family, and has voted consistently for President Bush’s agenda. Her committee duties range from international relations to domestic volunteer policy and government reform.

Meanwhile, the threat of chaos at the polling places looms: Lawsuits. Injunctions. Another national nightmare, in which the election will be decided by the courts.

“It’s hard to speculate,” says Mrs. Harris, sipping the last of her coffee. “If there’s a silver lining about this, it’s certainly making people understand how critical their vote is.”

Of the 2000 election, she says, “There was no coup d’etat. There was not a shot fired. There was no blood spilled.”

As to whether Florida might need her assistance after Tuesday’s election, she says, “I’m not so sure they’d invite me.”

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