A campaign disaster

Disaster may not be too strong a word for Rep. Katherine Harris’ Senate campaign.

Her makeup and formfitting clothes are mocked on national TV. Her flirty interview style embarrasses her campaign handlers. Staffers keep quitting in despair.

She’s been linked to a shady defense contractor, caught in fibs and scolded for telling voters that non-Christian politicians “legislate sin.”

Yet, on the strength of her name recognition, Harris is expected to win Florida’s GOP Senate nomination on Tuesday, to the chagrin of many Republicans.

“This campaign will go down in history as one of the most disastrous ever run in the United States,” declares Jim Dornan, who helped launch Harris’ bid as her campaign manager. He left three months later, unable to work with her.

“I don’t think anybody can envision any campaign being conducted in as poor a fashion as this one’s been conducted,” said Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida political science professor.

Her campaign shrugs off such criticism.

“Our entire campaign team is looking forward, not backward,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Marks. “We’re energized and we’re excited.”

Republicans in Washington and Florida tried to recruit someone notable to enter the primary against Harris, from Florida House Speaker Allan Bense to former congressman and political talk show host Joe Scarborough.

Those efforts failed. So Harris is expected to walk away with the nomination against three political unknowns who got in the GOP primary on the last day of qualifying.

That would leave Republicans — who want to oust first-term Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in November — to hope that Harris can rebuild a campaign that has been wobbly from day one.

She kicked off her campaign in August last year with rallies in Sarasota and Polk County, where an enthusiastic hometown crowd waved signs and cheered. Her speeches went off without a hitch. Then came a live national TV appearance on Fox News’ “Hannity & Colmes.”

That interview set the tone for the rest of the campaign.

Harris stood at an angle reminiscent of a beauty queen, with a smile to match. She repeatedly told hosts Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes that she was “excited” about the campaign, but she didn’t have much of substance to say. At times she appeared to be flirting with Hannity.

As her campaign manager at the time, Dornan said he was “mortified.”

“She doesn’t interview, she flirts. And it’s offensive to professional women and it’s embarrassing,” he said.

That appearance marked the return to late-night mockery of Harris, who was the butt of jokes about her makeup during the 2000 presidential recount, when, as Florida’s secretary of state she declared George W. Bush the winner. Despite the ribbing, she became a conservative hero, and that fame propelled her into a House seat in 2003.

She was again a running gag on late-night comedy shows, as well as political blogs such as Wonkette.

What followed were details of her relationship with Mitchell Wade, a defense contractor who pleaded guilty to bribing another congressman. Wade admitted giving Harris $32,000 in illegal campaign contributions. Harris also attended two lavish dinners with Wade, including one that cost $2,800.

Harris had sought a $10 million federal appropriation so Wade’s company, MZM Inc., could build a counterintelligence facility in her Sarasota district; the House rejected the proposal.

Her advisers told her to get out of the race, that she couldn’t win. Instead, she did another odd interview with Hannity to say she would spend $10 million of her own money to stay in.

Soon after, all her key staff left. They described a candidate who wouldn’t take advice, threw tantrums and bawled. The replacements she hired left after three months.

Her credibility came into question when none of nine promised elected officials showed up at a campaign event in an Orlando airport hanger. The crowd was also dismal, and she said a tree fell on the hanger where the event was originally scheduled and people must not have known where to go. But it turned out that story was made up.

She recently called separation of church and state “a lie,” and angered Jews and others by saying, “If you’re not electing Christians, then in essence you are going to legislate sin.”

Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush said Harris couldn’t win. Ditto Republican Party of Florida Chairman Carol Jean Jordan.

But Marks, Harris’ spokeswoman, says the candidate is being greeted by “a tremendous wave of support” as she travels the state, focusing on issues instead of the controversies. Campaigning on Monday in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana district, Harris spoke Spanish with the help of a press aide and drank cafe con leche.

Restaurateur Reinaldo Romo, who got a hug and a sticker from Harris, said, “She can always count on my vote. She’s very truthful, and she’s a very nice lady.”

There are some beyond Florida’s borders wishing her well, too.

“On a very personal level, I would be thrilled if she won election to the Senate,” said Alex Pareene, editor of the cheeky political Web site Wonkette. “It would make my job easier for the next six years. Mean-spirited or not, I am rooting for her all the way.”

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press