No recount necessary

Florida's Katherine Harris won the Republican primary despite dismal poll numbers, a subpoena in a bribery investigation and droves of campaign deserters. Her victory may be sweetest for Democrats.

Published September 6, 2006 1:15PM (EDT)

Rep. Katherine Harris, America's patron saint of partisanship, looked as radiant as ever. She stood Tuesday night amid her adoring fans, in "Harris for Senate" T-shirts, with a bevy of television cameras rolling, and a victory in her pocket. Despite a disastrous and humiliating campaign, Florida's Republican voters had selected her as their nominee to the United States Senate.

For the moment, it didn't seem to matter that little things were still going wrong. She had timed her victory speech just as Charlie Crist, Florida's Republican nominee for governor, took over the networks to accept his nomination, all but ensuring there would be no live coverage of the event. And though she was reading from a script, she accidentally accused her opponent, the incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson, of squandering his time in the Florida Senate, instead of the U.S. Senate. Then there was the repetition of words, which suggested either nervous improvisation or lousy speechwriting: "It's a great victory because it shows each of us that we can overcome adversity to achieve an extraordinary victory."

But, for the moment, the adversity had been overcome, and that was the important part. All year, her campaign staff has been deserting her in waves and giving nasty backstabbing quotes to the press. Many in the Republican leadership, including Florida's Gov. Jeb Bush, had all but pronounced her campaign a dead letter. The Justice Department had even issued a subpoena to her campaign, as part of an ongoing bribery investigation of a convicted lobbyist. Public polls showed her trailing Nelson by anywhere from 15 to 35 percent, with statewide favorability ratings below 30 percent. But here she was, the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in Florida, not six years after she was introduced to the nation as Florida's secretary of state during the 2000 presidential recount.

"Make no mistake, it's not going to be easy," she told the fawning crowd of about 50. "But standing here tonight is proof positive just how we can courageously beat the odds."

So far this year, nothing has been easy for Harris. Wherever she goes these days, car crashes -- both literal and figurative -- seem to follow. Just a day earlier, on a campaign tour through Miami, she had just pulled into a gas station to wave at traffic, when two cars collided behind her. A stolen compact sedan smashed into the back of a Chevy Tahoe, which was carrying two small children. The driver of the stolen car sped off, and a local traffic policeman who had been escorting the congresswoman flipped on his siren in hot pursuit. Before long, the gas station was swarming with police from at least four jurisdictions, firemen, the occupants of the Tahoe, and, eventually, the captured perpetrator, who sat shackled in the back of a patrol car.

But Harris overcame this adversity as well. Without missing a beat, she darted back and forth between waving at traffic and tending to the collision. She rushed over to the occupants of the Tahoe to make sure they were all safe. "How are the children?" she asked, referring to the two young girls, ages 4 and 8, in the back seat. They were fine, so Harris gave them both campaign stickers. "Kids like stickers," she explained, a bit apologetically. She even made her way to the squad car to take a look at the perp. "I wanted to see who the jerk was," she said. Someone told her that a traffic officer from the town of Sweetwater had captured the alleged car thief. "That's fantastic," she exclaimed. "Good for the Sweetwater officer."

When she returned to the road, her wrist rotating in a pageant wave, the traffic greeted her with an equal measure of honks of support and jeers of derision. "Boo Harris," screamed one passing passenger. "Harris sucks," yelled another. "I hate Harris." But her wrist rotation never faltered. Her wide smile never slackened. "We don't pay any attention to the polls," Harris explained to me, as the cars continued to rush by. "I think some of the liberals try to ... well they can make polls say whatever they want to."

One-on-one, Harris can exude optimism that is infectious and unending, even if it has no clear connection with the grim reality of her situation. She is a case study of positive thinking, a Tony Robbins clone with mascara and black pearls. When she campaigns, her force of will is so intense that reality seems to bend and distort around her. The press corps follows a few steps behind, caught in the bubble of her self-confidence. They try to pierce through with questions filled with pesky facts. What about all the polls that show she has almost no chance to win against the Democratic incumbent? "We are going to win. Whenever we turn out our base, all the data shows we will beat Bill Nelson," she says, with a perfect smile and flared nostrils. What about the GOP heavies who have predicted her defeat? "The elite is tiny, at the top. All we want is the masses." How have you enjoyed the primary campaign so far? "It's been fantastic. On the trail, people have been extremely supportive."

This last answer omits any mention of the three campaign managers, two press secretaries, the pollster, the media advisor and the campaign consultant, among others, who have all quit the Harris campaign in the last year. Ed Goeas, the pollster, told a reporter his parting words were: "Get out." Ed Rollins, a former Reagan advisor who resigned as her campaign consultant in April, told the St. Petersburg Times: "My counsel was she could not possibly win. She didn't listen to anyone." Other former aides have been even less kind, describing her repeated behind-the-scenes "meltdowns," her obsessive micromanagement, her loose relationship with the truth, and her "Devil Wears Prada" demands for Starbucks coffee -- "extra hot venti triple latte, no fat, no foam, one Sweet'N Low." Jim Dornan, her first campaign manager, has called the Harris campaign "one of the most disastrous ever run in the United States."

Harris has managed to repeatedly botch and bungle her candidacy. She was quoted by a religious journal saying that the separation between church and state is "a lie," and that non-Christian candidates are likely to "legislate sin." She once peddled the unfounded rumor that former Rep. Joe Scarborough played a role in the death of one of his interns. More recently, she made a failed attempt to conceal from her staff -- and the voters -- a Justice Department subpoena for campaign records related to her dealings with Mitchell Wade, the military contractor who admitted to bribing the imprisoned California Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham. (Wade has admitted to funneling Harris illegal campaign donations; Harris claims she was not aware of any impropriety and is not a target of the investigation.) Personal obstacles have also interrupted the campaign. In January, her father, a close confidant named George Harris Jr., died at the age of 71. Then this summer, she had surgery to remove an ovarian mass.

"If I was a psychiatrist I could probably retire on trying to explain and figure her out," says Chris Ingram, her former press secretary, who left the campaign this summer and now works for a rival GOP candidate. "I feel sorry for her. I don't think she knows how to trust people."

But that Katherine Harris, the one of talk-show parody and Beltway derision, is completely absent when you spend time with her on the campaign trail. There she overflows with giddy energy and optimism, and an always-keen sense of fashion. Despite a Florida sun that felt like an open oven, she wore a black skirt, blouse, stockings and 3-inch heels as she crisscrossed Miami on Monday. Her makeup, tastefully toned and liberally applied, did not bleed. "Your suit matches your eyes. You are so lucky," Harris gushed on Monday, upon greeting Marisa Tinkler Mendez, a local circuit court candidate, at the Versailles Bakery in the heart of Miami's Little Havana. Fox News and CNN were there for interviews with Harris, and a handful of print reporters followed just in case she made another campaign gaffe. Even one of her GOP primary opponents, Peter Monroe, was lingering about in the hopes that her media attention would rub off on him. "Her trick is always to appear as a celebrity," Monroe explained, looking anonymous in a blue suit and red striped tie.

Harris' husband, a stately and bemused Swedish businessman, also followed her a few steps behind. When I asked him if he knew what he was getting into when he married Harris, he smiled and replied in a Swedish accent, "I always thought anything could happen with Katherine."

Contrary to liberal mythology, Katherine Harris did not magically spring into existence, a full-fledged apparatchik of the Bush campaign, on Nov. 7, 2000. That was when everyone who owned a television suddenly found her in the living room, the garishly painted face that served as Florida's secretary of state. She made decisions that outraged Democrats and won allegiance from Republicans, initially forbidding the state's counties from holding their own recounts and delaying a process that eventually ended prematurely when the Supreme Court awarded President Bush the White House.

She was in fact born in April 1957, the daughter of a wealthy banker and the granddaughter of Ben Hill Griffin Jr., a citrus and cattle magnate, whose legacy includes a failed run for governor in 1974 and the naming right to the University of Florida football stadium. Harris has described her childhood home in Polk County as "magical," with her mother working as a Girl Scout leader, and a pet horse named Cracker. As she told one Florida newspaper in 2002, "We had a neighborhood that everyone came to play in."

For college, she chose an all-girls school in Georgia, called Agnes Scott, where she followed a socialite's curriculum, studying art and philosophy in Spain and Switzerland. By her own account, she was more interested as a younger woman in patronizing the arts than in partisan gun-slinging. "I had hated politics, and wanted nothing to do with the political arena," Harris told me as she waved to passing motorists. "I thought that Washington and Tallahassee were very dark and dismal places."

But in 1988, she began organizing cocktail parties and fundraisers for Porter Goss, a local candidate for Congress who would go on to become the director of the CIA. She later became outraged at the conduct of her local state senator, a Democrat named Jim Boczar. Among his many sins in Harris' eyes, Boczar had reportedly joked that a Rubens (as in Peter Paul Rubens, the Flemish baroque painter) was just a sandwich. Unable to recruit another candidate to oppose him, she decided to run herself, facing long odds and a costly race.

And she won, tipping the balance of the evenly divided state Senate to the GOP in 1994. Four years later, she ran for secretary of state, again overcoming discouraging polls to defeat an incumbent by eight points. It is a record that has left her skeptical of the political prognosticators who now expect her certain defeat. "Together we shall prove the naysayers and the pundits wrong again," she exhorted the crowd on Tuesday night.

By all appearances, she plans to run a consistently negative campaign against Nelson, calling him a do-nothing elite who is more liberal than Hillary Clinton, a fact that she culls from a somewhat selective reading of the Florida senator's record. She has reportedly sunk more than $3 million from her own considerable fortune -- estimated at more than $30 million with her husband -- into the race. She has discussed selling her house in Washington or property in Florida to raise more funds.

From a distance it is easy to see the whole endeavor as a fool's errand. For Democrats, her defeat could be little more than icing on the cake of a transformative 2006 election. But to understand why Harris herself continues to withstand the jeering motorists and the patronizing press corps, one has to step back from the influential, if not accidental, role she played in the 2000 election. At the time, she was a secretary of state who spent her time visiting foreign countries, a person caught as off guard as the rest of America by the election debacle. By most accounts, she did the bidding of the political party she served, executing the law in a way that favored her party's future leader.

But today she controls her own fate, and she seems determined to do herself proud no matter the cost. This may just be what her campaign consultants and pollsters never completely understood about her as they tried to steer her to abandoning the race. "She has always wanted to be someone of some importance, " says Glenn Hodas, who quit as Harris' campaign manager in July and now doubts whether she has the proper temperament to be a U.S. senator. "She doesn't quite realize the reality of her situation."

At the end of her victory speech Tuesday, she inserted a quick line, six words that were easily lost amid the exhortations and applause lines. "I know my dad is smiling," she said.

It was a revealing moment, in which she seemed to be saying something else: If she must lose this race, Katherine Harris has decided she is going to lose on her own terms. She will not be forced out by party leaders or political advisors. She will not be defeated by the press or by her own clumsy mistakes. The Florida socialite, the arts benefactor, the torchbearer of the family of Ben Hill Griffin Jr. is going to lose with style. Her own style. This is, no doubt, a pose that would make her family proud.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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