By DAVID ROYSE
The Associated Press
Wednesday, May 10, 2006; 7:20 PM
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Gov. Jeb Bush's choice of Republicans to run for U.S. Senate this fall announced Wednesday that he was declining the opportunity and won't challenge U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris for the party's nomination.
Allan Bense, the state House speaker, had been urged by several top party members to get into the primary against Harris, whose poll numbers have dwindled.
Bush had personally asked Bense to run and earlier this week went so far as to say Harris, who has been in the race since June, cannot beat the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Bill Nelson.
"You have to have the fire in the belly, you have to be engerized and I'm a little tired right now," said Bense, 54, who made his decision five days after the annual legislative session ended. "It's an extremely steep mountain to climb in a short period of time."
He also knew raising money for the September primary and then a general election would have been a daunting task.
"The fundraising would have been ugly at best. I would have had to raise somewhere between $18 (million) and $25 million," Bense said. "That's $150,000 a day, seven days a week, five straight months."
He said the decision came down to "the fundamental question of whether I was willing to spend the next six, 12 or possibly 18 years of my life away from my family and my home serving Florida in the U.S. Senate. After much thought and prayer, I realized the answer to that question is 'no.'"
Bush said he was disappointed but understood. He said he knew of no other Republican candidates being pushed to get in the race, but noted that potential candidates had until Friday to enter the primary.
The governor added that he wished "congresswoman Harris well."
Harris said she was "grateful" Bense decided against challenging her because she considers him a friend, not that she was worried about possibly losing to him.
Harris rose to national prominence as Florida secretary of state during the contentious presidential election recount in 2000 that resulted in the governor's brother winning the presidency.
That role brought Harris both strong supporters and committed opponents, and she has been unable to shake the divisive image during her two terms in Congress.
Recently, she has been dogged by staff turnover and her acceptance of $32,000 in campaign contributions from defense contractor Mitchell Wade, who pleaded guilty to bribing former U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif.
In an interview, Harris said if she has been abandoned by some party leaders, it doesn't matter.
"Every weekend when I go home, I've never been so encouraged," Harris said. "All that matters is that we get a chance to be before the people of Florida."
Harris also sounded a small note of independence in a statement released by her campaign, in which she said people in her district are "tired of partisan politics."
"While I am a proud and loyal Republican, ultimately, when I cast a vote I always ask, 'Is it the right vote for the people of my state and our nation as opposed to a partisan game?'"