By AMIE PARNES
Katherine Harris has seen better days.
And those days were the days following the 2000 presidential election. At that time, the former Florida Secretary of State was labeled a Republican Party "hero" after overseeing the ballot dispute which handed George W. Bush a victory.
Now, the U.S. Congresswoman with senate aspirations faces a number of obstacles as she attempts to defeat incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson in November.
For starters, the Longboat Key, Fla., Republican trails Bill Nelson by 15 points in at least two polls. Her fundraising has been what some Republicans call "lackluster." And in recent days, her campaign treasurer and finance director resigned, following the earlier departure of her campaign manager and spokesperson.
The obstacles haven’t ended there.
This week, Harris faced her most ardent campaign task yet, political observers said, when she was forced to explain her ties to a California defense contractor who allegedly contributed more than $30,000 to her 2004 campaign.
That contractor, Mitchell Wade, is currently embroiled in a bribery case and is accused of donating thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions. Wade pleaded guilty last Friday to bribing former California congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham with $1 million in gifts. He also said he illegally contributed thousands of dollars to Harris’ campaign.
Harris has since donated that money to charity.
Add all of these elements together and Harris’ campaign is "falling apart," analysts say.
"I don’t think she’s going to be the nominee," said David Johnson, a Republican Pollster with Strategic Vision LLC. "She’s going to drop out.
"For Republicans," Johnson added, "this is a missed opportunity if they don’t get her out of the race."
Calls to Harris’ campaign office were not returned on Friday.
So what’s next for the Republican Party? Do they have someone lined up in case Harris does step aside? Could Rep. Mark Foley be the party’s go-to guy?
"Possibly," Johnson said, adding that Foley has been among the top contenders for months.
In an interview last month, Foley said he was "still considering" a run for the senate race. The Fort Pierce, Fla., Republican said he has a decent sized war chest _ more than $2.6 million at last count _ and has until May to decide if he would in enter the race.
(As of her last campaign Federal Election Commission filing in January, Harris had approximately $1 million in the bank.)
On Friday, Foley spokesman Jason Kello said, "nothing’s changed" in terms of a Foley senate run.
Still, Kello admitted, "Nothing about Florida politics is lost on Mark Foley."
"At the same time," he added, "Katherine Harris remains the only person in this race."
Behind the scenes, that sentiment worries some Republicans, who think Harris is much too polarizing to defeat an uncontroversial, incumbent senator.
But they do believe Nelson is vulnerable, if matched-up against the right opponent.
"Nelson does not have the strong persona that Bob Graham had," Johnson said.
Those who know Harris, however, say the congresswoman is in the race for the long haul and has no intension of pulling out.
"She seems determined," said Susan McManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, who said she has recently spoken to Harris. "She says she’s going for it. Whatever happens happens. "
(Contact Amie Parnes at parnesa(at)shns.com)