- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Rep. Katherine Harris’ Senate campaign is running into deeper trouble as her approval ratings decline and Republican pressure builds on Florida House Speaker Allan Bense to challenge her in the Sept. 5 primary.

In the past few months, polls have showed Mrs. Harris, who rose to political fame as the secretary of state who oversaw Florida’s disputed 2000 presidential-election recount, leading all comers for the Republican nomination to run against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. But a Republican Strategic Vision poll of 500 likely voters conducted April 21 to 23 showed Mrs. Harris polling at 38 percent, while a majority of Republicans either supported Mr. Bense (21 percent) or were undecided (41 percent).

“Harris continues to be in trouble and, based upon our polling, is extremely vulnerable to a primary challenge by” Mr. Bense, Strategic Vision reported last week. “This is the first time in our polling that her numbers in a potential primary have fallen below 40 percent.”

A Quinnipiac University poll reported last week that Mr. Nelson was leading Mrs. Harris 56 percent to 27 percent.

That is why top Republicans from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to White House political strategist Karl Rove have been working behind the scenes to persuade Mr. Bense to enter the primary contest, thinking he has a better chance of defeating Mr. Nelson in the heavily Republican state.

Mr. Rove is said to be privately urging Mr. Bense to run — promising fundraising assistance and the party’s full resources, according to senior party officials.

The filing deadline for the party primary is May 12, and Mr. Bense, a popular figure in the state Legislature who is retiring this year, could announce a decision next week.

The national party will continue to support Mrs. Harris “until something happens to make the race different,” said Brian Nick, chief spokesman of the Republican National Senatorial Committee.

For months, Mrs. Harris’ campaign has been hit by political crises, including a poor fundraising record that forced her to contribute several million dollars of her personal fortune to her campaign and the resignation of senior campaign staff.

In this week’s Rothenberg Political Report, elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg called the Harris campaign “an utter, unabashed, unparalleled disaster” that “hasn’t gotten off the ground and isn’t likely to at any point this century.”

But Democrats say it would be premature to count Mrs. Harris out, pointing to her past election record as a statewide candidate and to Mr. Bense’s weakness as a little-known state lawmaker from the Florida Panhandle.

“Katherine Harris has been underestimated throughout her political career and has always proved her critics and doubters wrong,” said Ron Sachs, a veteran Democratic media strategist in Florida. “What that 41 percent undecided in the Strategic Vision poll tells me is that people have not ruled out supporting her.”

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