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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)

In a recent campaign visit to Bartow, her home town in central Florida, there is little hint of the Hyde side. The 49-year-old Harris beams, dispensing hugs and telling stories about her late "daddy," the wealthy owner of a local bank chain. She is tiny and wears a fitted suit jacket the color of key lime pie. For old times' sake, she visits a livestock arena where her cousins used to show their cows. She shrieks with joy upon seeing an old friend, Bill Braswell.

"Billy and I grew up together," she says. They reminisce about an old haunt and an old boyfriend of hers. "That was, like, the first place Gary and I ever kissed," she tells him.

Here in Bartow, Harris appears to be adored. She is remembered for her days in 4-H, for her stint as Miss Polk Agriculture at age 16, and for her competitive tennis game.

"Daddy used to say not to come home if I didn't win my tennis matches [against] boys," she tells Braswell.

Nelson may have endorsements from 22 papers, including all the major dailies in the state, but Harris has an endorsement from a small collection of community newspapers (total circulation: 8,307) here in Polk, her home county. The endorsement was written by the papers' publisher, S.L. Frisbie IV, who has known Harris since she was a Girl Scout.

"Clearly she has difficulty maintaining a staff," Frisbie says. "I haven't the slightest idea why. . . . She is a charming person."

During an interview in the livestock arena, amid the ghosts of her cousins' cows, Harris talks about two of her greatest passions: art and Israel. She has made several trips to Israel, and it was on the first, in 1992, that her camera broke and she was forced to sketch her way across the country. These days, during meetings on Capitol Hill, she sometimes sketches when she's taking notes. She says she has drawn Alan Greenspan and Donald Rumsfeld.

After Harris's quote about the importance of electing Christians was published in a Baptist publication, her campaign went into damage control, issuing a press release discussing Harris's love for Israel and explaining that while she was speaking to a Christian audience, she really meant that "people of faith" should be involved in government.

Harris does love talking about Israel. She's proud that Israelis sometimes assume she's one of them and talk to her in Hebrew. She is a Christian but has called herself a "wannabe" Jew. During the bitterly contested recount in 2000, which she oversaw as Florida's secretary of state, she compared herself to the Biblical character Queen Esther, who risked her life to save the Jews.

She says that when her husband of 10 years, wealthy Swedish businessman Anders Ebbeson, asked her to marry him, she first extracted a promise that they could live in the Holy Land one day. She doesn't know why she's always been so fascinated by the country.

"I can remember riding my bike to piano lessons and thinking about Israel," she says. "I thought I was adopted for a while."

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