Campaign Gone South
Florida's Katherine Harris Continues Her Senate Race, Shedding Staff Along the Way

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


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.

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."

* * *

Harris's public spats with Republican leaders and her own former staffers -- shorn of the niceties of political etiquette that typically surround such things -- have played out in the Florida newspapers like the autopsy of a political campaign. The skin is peeled back and everyone can see inside.

Several of her former staffers say they would have kept silent about goings-on in the Harris campaign if Harris herself had not publicly criticized them after they left, accusing them of being bad at their jobs, of putting "knives in my back" and of working with the Nelson campaign. They describe her as a micromanager, unable to trust her staff, prone to tears and rages over tiny things. They say she would rewrite speeches and press releases over and over. She would get upset if an aide hadn't brought her the correct coffee order from Starbucks. Dornan, the former campaign manager, says Harris was so concerned that only the best photographs of her went up on the campaign Web site that she insisted on going through every picture.

"It would be weeks and weeks and weeks before we could put anything up on the Web site," he says.

Dornan says he once infuriated Harris right before an event by setting it up so she could make a grand entrance. Instead, she wanted to greet supporters at the door as they arrived.

"She just goes completely ballistic," Dornan recalls. He says she yelled at him for 10 minutes and accused him of ruining her life. "I literally held the phone away from my ear, and everybody within a six-foot circle of me could hear her screaming."

Harris's former staffers say they worried about her health, especially after the death of her father earlier this year and the news that she was implicated in a bribery scandal with a federal contractor named Mitchell Wade, who had pleaded guilty to bribing former congressman Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.). (Wade admitted funneling $32,000 in illegal donations to Harris, but Harris has said she didn't realize the contributions were illegal and ultimately gave the money to charity.)

They worried about her clothes -- suit jackets and sweaters that were too tight, skirts that were too short. Rollins says an aide was dispatched to take her shopping for more senatorial apparel.

They worried about what one former field coordinator called her sense of "religious mission." Two former staffers -- Rollins and another onetime campaign manager, Jamie Miller -- have said Harris told them that God wanted her to be a senator. Rollins adds, "She told me that she thought she could be the first woman president."

Sitting in the livestock arena, Harris laughs at the notion she'd ever want to be president. In the past she told the Palm Beach Post that she was complimentary of those staffers who performed well, but had problems with those who would "try to undermine" her. Now, she sidesteps the question of why she had problems with staff.

"It's going to be easily explained in my book," she says. "We have a great staff now."

The Harris campaign has suffered a series of embarrassing gaffes. According to one Florida paper, her Web site listed endorsements from people who hadn't endorsed her. According to another paper, her campaign organized a rally in an airport hangar, but none of the nine officials named on her flier showed up.

In the spring, Harris announced on television she was putting $10 million of her inheritance from her father into the race. Later, she said it turned out the inheritance would not be available, so she'd put in her own money. Thus far, she has put in approximately $3.2 million, which is, she says, "everything that I have liquid."

Meanwhile, according to a financial disclosure report, her campaign has less than $1 million left. Nelson's campaign has nearly $7 million. Nelson has run seven ads since the primaries in September. Harris has aired only one and it started yesterday, according to campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Marks.

Harris turns stony when she's asked what will happen if she doesn't win.

"Haven't even considered it," she says in a tone that suggests a follow-up question would be foolhardy.

Later in the evening, while talking about her love for Queen Esther, she runs to the passenger seat of her SUV and seizes a Bible.

"I'll give you one verse," she says. "On the day that the enemies of the Jews had hoped to overpower them, the opposite occurred, in that the Jews themselves overpowered those who hated them."

What does that have to do with this race?

"November 7th," she replies.

Staff researcher Meg Smith and research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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