Thursday, July 21, 2005

White House political strategist Karl Rove and the National Republican Senatorial Committee have been trying to talk Florida Rep. Katherine Harris out of running for the Senate next year, but have been unsuccessful thus far.

Mrs. Harris has had several private meetings with Mr. Rove and with NRSC officials, including Chairman Sen. Elizabeth Dole, North Carolina Republican, who have urged her to forgo the Republican Party’s high-priority Senate race. Instead, they want her to run for a third House term, pointing to internal polling data that shows she cannot beat freshman Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in 2006.

But the congresswoman, who won national attention as Florida’s secretary of state during the bitter ballot recount in the 2000 presidential election, has argued in these meetings that she has proved the polls wrong throughout her political career. To prove it again this time, she has put together a cadre of heavyweight campaign advisers, including Ed Rollins who managed President Reagan’s 1984 campaign.

“I know I can win this,” she has told doubting party officials.

Mr. Nelson, who narrowly won his seat in 2000 with 51 percent of the vote, is one of the Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbents, and Mrs. Dole and Mr. Rove, who has played a key role in the party’s successful candidate recruitment, have made the senator one of their chief targets.

Polls show Mrs. Harris, who is popular with the state’s conservatives, would be the clear front-runner in a party primary contest, but they also show she runs particularly poorly among independents and draws virtually no support among Democrats. A Quinnipiac University poll last month showed Mr. Nelson leading her in a head-to-head matchup 50 percent to 38 percent.

Fearing that a weak Senate candidate could endanger the Republican Party’s gubernatorial contest next year, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Mr. Rove and the NRSC have been urging Florida House Speaker Alan Bense to get into the race. Mr. Bense, who has been aggressively recruited by Mr. Bush back home and by Mrs. Dole and Mr. Rove at recent meetings in Washington, is said to be looking at the race but has not reached a decision.

But Mrs. Dole has a number of other pivotal races in which Republican incumbents are endangered, including Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, which could produce a net gain for the Democrats in this election cycle.

Mr. Santorum, who is No. 3 in the Senate Republican leadership lineup and is seeking a third term, is being challenged by state Treasurer Robert Casey Jr., the son of the late governor, who like his father is running as a pro-life centrist Democrat, but who has said little about where he stands on most issues.

“I don’t know that he has addressed any issues. They are kind of locking him away, letting him run on his father’s name. Obviously, that race is one we are very much focused on,” Mrs. Dole said.

Mr. Santorum has raised $5.6 million thus far, plus $1.7 million more at a recent fundraiser featuring President Bush.

“That’s twice what Casey has raised,” Mrs. Dole said, though she conceded that it’s going to be a tough race next year in a state that Mr. Bush lost by 2.5 points.

Meantime, Rhode Island’s Mr. Chafee, a liberal party maverick in a heavily Democratic state, faces a conservative challenge from Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey, who would be favored in a Republican Party primary. State Republican officials say they, Mr. Rove and the NRSC have also tried to talk Mr. Laffey out of running, urging him to run for lieutenant governor and then seek the governorship.

“Right now, it looks like Laffey is going to run and that means we could lose this seat,” a party official said.

Thirty-three Senate seats will be at stake next year, including three open seats, but most election analysts do not see Republicans losing control of the chamber, although some say the Democrats could reduce the 55-seat majority by two or more seats.

“Sixteen months before Election Day, the Republicans appear likely to maintain control of the Senate,” said elections tracker Stuart Rothenberg. “But Democrats have a good chance of netting Senate seats, shrinking the GOP majority for the president’s final two years.”

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