Why Florida Senate race could turn into a comedy drama

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The Independent US

The Republicans have a potential cruise missile for a candidate to contest the crucial race in Florida next year for a seat in the US Senate being vacated by the retiring Democrat Bob Graham. She is a woman of independent wealth, with striking looks and, most importantly, with exceptionally high name recognition.

Why then, are all Republicans, and the White House in particular, petrified at the very prospect? Because her name is Katherine Harris, once called the "power bitch" for her pivotal role as Florida's secretary of state in handing the state, and therefore the Presidency itself, to George Bush in the 2000 balloting debacle.

What was a tragedy in 2000, at least for supporters of Al Gore, is shaping up to be a comic drama for 2004. Mr Bush wants nothing more than for the country to forget the screwball manner in which he squeaked into the White House three years ago. No such national amnesia will be possible if Ms Harris is in the picture.

A Senate run by Ms Harris, who was elected to the US House of Representatives last year, is still not a sure thing. When Senator Graham recently made the surprise announcement that he was retiring, she said only she was thinking about it.

But a poll in the Orlando Sentinel newspaper yesterday showed her far in the lead of other possible Republican candidates. Equally easy to see is why political strategists for President George Bush would be mortified. Not only would he have to stand on the same platform as Ms Harris every time he visited Florida next year but her candidacy would be sure to galvanise Democrat voters across the state, who blame her for "robbing" them of victory last time around.

Florida is vital to Mr Bush's re-election hopes next year. His Housing Secretary, Mel Martinez, who is from Florida, has suddenly expressed an interest in running for the Senate seat although only a few months ago he was ruling it out.

But if he is being pushed into joining the race by the White House, he may face an uphill struggle. The same Sentinel poll yesterday gave him a level of support only in the single digits. Complicating the plot further is the role of Jeb Bush, the President's brother and the Governor of Florida.

The Martinez manoeuvre has reportedly infuriated Governor Bush, who does not take kindly to any suggestion of the Oval Office manipulating the politics of his state. Revealing its interest in the issue, the White House dispatched its key political strategists to meet Mr Martinez a fews days after Mr Graham dropped out. Governor Bush keeps denying there are tensions between Talahasse and Washington while reiterating that there will be no special favours for Mr Martinez. When the Palm Beach Post newspaper asked him about a Martinez candidacy Mr Bush replied: "If he runs, he's going to have to earn it. This year we have had candidates who had the courage to run when Bob Graham was still in the race."

When reporters in Tallahassee asked whether he and President Bush had argued over the issue, Governor Bush said: "She said only she was thinking about it. No, no. We're totally in sync."

But Ms Harris continues to take umbrage at what every Democrat says about her, that she fixed the outcome for his brother in 2000 by certifying the Bush victory in Florida and then by refusing to legitimate recounted votes in Broward County. (Mr Bush, after a ruling by the US Supreme Court, ended up taking Florida by just 537 votes.)

She said she would like to use a campaign for the US Senate to "gut all the inane arguments they make about the recount, which are really ludicrous". She added: "I know we conducted the recount honourably and we can prove it."

Ms Harris, 44, a former Democrat who became a Republican in 1986, cannot seek re-election when her present term as secretary of state ends in January 2003. But she can raise money for what may prove to be the year's most expensive Senate race in America. "There is no question that Republican activists, conservative, moderate, you name it, think the world of her," Jim Kane, director of Florida Voter, said. Ms Harris told The New York Times that running for the Senate "is not something I had really considered", but since Mr Graham announced that he would not run "my phone has just not stopped ringing". She said she had been trying to determine whether her candidacy would hurt President Bush.