Katherine Harris: On the skids

Rep. Katherine Harris, R-Fla., insists she won’t drop out of the race for the Senate from her state, but even Republicans admit her campaign is in disarray.

She has low poll numbers, a lackluster campaign war chest, and a dwindling staff. On top of that, Harris has been linked in recent weeks to a defense contractor, Mitchell Wade, who is embroiled in a bribery case and is accused of donating thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions.

Wade pleaded guilty last week to bribing former California Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham with $1 million in gifts. Wade also said he illegally contributed thousands of dollars to Harris’ 2004 congressional campaign. Harris has since donated that money to charity.

Still, Harris announced this week that she is in the Senate race for the long haul, making it difficult for other Republicans to enter the contest for the seat held by Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. Other potential candidates, such as Rep. Mark Foley, have said they would consider running only if Harris walked away.

“I’m in this race,” Harris told Sean Hannity of Fox News on Wednesday evening, as she announced that she was contributing $10 million of her own money to her campaign for use in the general election. “And I’m going to win.”

But others aren’t so sure.

Harris’ latest announcement is “a classic political tactic by a candidate who’s in trouble,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

“Is it going to dramatically change the race? Nope. She’s still the Republican nominee and she will still lose in November,” Sabato said.

David E. Johnson, a Republican pollster with Strategic Vision LLC, agreed that the fund-raising announcement will not change the dynamic of the race, nor will it close the large gap between Harris and Nelson, who is leading by as many as 20 percentage points in some polls.

“A lot of conservatives are really upset that she didn’t drop out,” Johnson said. “The past two months have reinforced a negative image of Katherine Harris, and there comes a point where your negatives are too high that you can’t turn it around with money.

“When you have to keep reasserting the fact that you’re in the race, that’s a sign of trouble,” Johnson added. “It shows a campaign in disarray.”

Harris’ announcement of contributing her own money to her campaign became somewhat of a political punch line in Washington and Florida, where Harris has been a polarizing figure since she oversaw the presidential-election ballot dispute that ended in a victory for George W. Bush.

“As a former classmate of Harris’ put it to me in an e-mail, ‘First she helped President George (W.) Bush steal an election. Now she is trying to buy one,’ ” said David Donnelly, director of the Public Campaign Action Fund, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to campaign finance laws.

Nelson aides piled on, saying that Harris’ latest campaign move was a sign of weakness.

“This is a desperate attempt to deflect attention from a career of blunders and failures, from ties to one of the country’s largest-ever bribery scandals and from the fact that there is no real support for Katherine Harris’ campaign,” said Dan McLaughlin, a Nelson spokesman.

But publicly, at least, local Republican Party officials said they support Harris.

“She has a lot going for her,” said Carla Dean, chairwoman of the Collier County Republican Party. “It falls on us to be supportive of her campaign.”

(Contact Amie Parnes at ParnesA(at)shns.com)