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Fla. Senate: Curtains For Katherine?

Florida Rep. Katherine Harris (R) just can't catch a break in her bid to challenge first-term Sen. Bill Nelson (D). After months of state and national Republican leaders publicly searching for an alternative candidate, Harris this week finally appeared to have the nomination to herself. But the resignation on Tuesday of her campaign manager, Jim Dornan, combined with a new poll showing her still trailing Nelson badly in a head-to-head matchup, has renewed speculation that she may drop out of the race or draw a serious primary challenger.

Is a Katherine Harris Senate run good news or bad news for Republicans? (Charlotte Sun-Herald file photo via AP)

Sources familiar with the congresswoman's thinking say it is extremely unlikely she will end her candidacy.  In addition, polls showing she is a strong favorite to win the GOP primary and the fact that there is an active campaign being staged to replace her in the 13th district serve as strong disincentives for her to reconsider her statewide ambitions.

Assuming Harris is in the race to stay , the question is whether any other legitimate Republican candidate will take a shot at knocking her off.  Although numerous names have been mentioned throughout the recruitment process, here are the four most bandied-about by those in the know.

* State House Speaker Allan Bense: Earlier this year, Bense was the preferred Harris alternative in the eyes of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and many national Republican leaders.  Bense declined to run in early August, but with Harris's recent problems his name has cropped up again, especially after he gave a classic non-denial denial statement ("You never say never, but I'm very focused on what I'm doing today, right now.") to local reporters when asked about a Senate bid.

Towson Fraser, a spokesman for Bense, said Tuesday that nothing has changed since his boss passed on the contest earlier this year. "With what's going on with [Harris], people go back to the articles and say 'who else might run,'" said Fraser.  "All this speculation is just that." 

One knowledgeable operative said that the reason Bense passed on the contest initially was the prohibitive fundraising cost associated with simply matching Harris's near-universal name identification among primary voters, a fact that remains unchanged despite her struggles.

* Rep. Mark Foley: Foley seems to be playing a game of "wait and see," although he clearly covets a Senate seat.  In 2003 Foley was considered the frontrunner in the Republican Senate primary but abruptly dropped from the race, citing concerns about his father's health. With that experience in his rear-view mirror, Foley continues to allow his name to be floated as a possible candidate without giving any indication how seriously he is considering the race or when he will make a final announcement. Spokesman Jason Kello said yesterday that Foley's $2.4 million warchest affords him "a little bit of time to make a decision." Although Foley could transfer those millions directly into a Senate account, he would still lag bar behind Nelson's $6.5 million cash-on-hand total at the end of September.

* Auto dealer Vern Buchanan: Buchanan is currently running for Harris's congressional seat, but his strong fundraising over the past three months ($588,000 raised) and his personal wealth (his net worth is at least $50 million) have piqued the interest of some strategists looking for a horse in the Senate race.  Buchanan was in Washington, D.C., last week, and several people approached him about a possible Senate run, said one party operative.  Buchanan, apparently, was not persuaded; "We are running for Congress," said his campaign manager Tommy Hooper, adding that a Senate bid was "not under consideration."

* Rep. Dave Weldon: Weldon appears to be following the same path he took in 2004 when he mulled a candidacy for months before stepping aside almost unnoticed.  Weldon has done little to leave the impression he is planning to give up the 15th district he has held since 1994.  He raised just $108,000 from July 1 to Sept. 30 and had a respectable -- but far from outstanding -- $551,000 left on hand.  Weldon's office did not return a call seeking comment on his interest in the Senate race.

Overview: With none of the above candidates expressing any real excitement about joining the race, the most likely scenario still appears to be Harris running essentially unopposed for the party's nomination.  Most Republican strategists privately believe she is too damaged from her divisive role during the 2000 Florida presidential recount to win statewide, but at this point many party insiders are resigned to the fact she will be their nominee.

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 17, 2005; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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