Campaign Gone South

Katherine Harris
Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.), right, with childhood friend Bill Braswell and his wife, Cathy, at a political rally in Florida. Harris hopes to unseat Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. (Cathy Kupulka - For The Washington Post)

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By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

BARTOW, Fla.

Katherine Harris, who is trying to become a U.S. senator, says she is writing a tell-all about the many people who have wronged her. This includes, but is not necessarily limited to: the Republican leaders who didn't want her to run, the press that has covered her troubled campaign, and the many staffers who have quit her employ, whom she accuses of colluding with her opponent.

She is vague about what, precisely, makes her a victim, but she says she has it all documented.

"I've been writing it all year," she says in that kittenish voice. She often smiles and cocks her head as if she's letting you in on a secret. "It's going to be a great book."

If it is, it may be one of very few things that go well for the two-term Republican congresswoman. Once beloved by the Republican leadership for her role in overseeing the 2000 recount that delivered the presidency to George Bush, Harris was snubbed by those old friends before the primary. Republican chieftains, considering her too polarizing to win a statewide race, tried to recruit others, and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) said publicly that she could not win. Fundraising has been poor. She has come under scrutiny for her role in a bribery scandal. She has caught flak for a series of bizarre statements, including a comment in August: "If you're not electing Christians, then in essence you are going to legislate sin."

The Democrat she is challenging, Sen. Bill Nelson, was once considered highly vulnerable. Nowadays, according to recent polls, Harris is down by 26 or 35 points, approaching political rigor mortis.

"The only way Bill Nelson could lose this," says Darryl Paulson, a political scientist (and Republican) at the University of South Florida, "is if he got himself in a drug-induced stupor and ran naked down the main street of his home town."

"They can make the polls say whatever they want," Harris says. She says pollsters sometimes call her house and then hang up " 'cause we're not answering them the way they like."

The way Harris sees it, a vast left- and right-wing conspiracy, encompassing both the "liberal media" and the Republican "elite," is attempting to keep her out of the Senate. She says anyone could see the way the panel of questioners coddled Nelson at their debate last week. Her voice gets all high and mocking as she imitates them.

" Ooooh, Senator Nelson," she says. "I mean, come on."

Perhaps the worst blow to Harris's campaign has been the stories that have emerged from former staffers. They describe a Jekyll-and-Hyde candidate who can be seductively charming at one moment and pitch a temper tantrum the next, throwing a cellphone at a wall or a sheaf of papers at a campaign manager. Former chief adviser Ed Rollins, who managed Ronald Reagan's reelection to the White House in 1984, said working for Harris was like "being in insanity camp." He likened her staff to dogs that have been kicked.

Before he became the first of three campaign managers to quit, Jim Dornan programmed his cellphone to play the theme song from "The Exorcist" when Harris called.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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