Katherine Harris gets kicked to the curb.

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June 30 2005 5:16 PM

Jilted

The Bush brothers kick Katherine Harris to the curb.

Don't leave me this way 
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Don't leave me this way

Odds are that you haven't thought about Katherine Harris for a while. When she was Florida secretary of state in 2000, of course, Harris' maneuvering helped George W. Bush carry Florida, and with it the presidency. For her role in the election, she was skewered as nakedly partisan and parodied on Saturday Night Live as an ambitious harpy caked in enough makeup to embarrass a drag queen. But Harris took her lumps, expecting the Republican Party to eventually repay her for her efforts. Instead, the president and his brother Jeb are now trying to sink her.

A little history: In 2002, Harris ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in a heavily Republican district and won. Two years later, she considered making a run for Bob Graham's Senate seat. But the White House wanted a different candidate in the race—Mel Martinez, then the secretary of Housing and Urban Development. In an effort to keep Harris out of the primary, Republicans approached her with a backroom deal, according to Florida media reports: Stay out of the 2004 race and the party will support your Senate run in 2006. Harris agreed, and Martinez ascended to the Senate.

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Earlier this month, Harris announced, right on time, that she would indeed make a 2006 run for Florida's second Senate seat, now held by Democrat Bill Nelson. But the Republicans she counted on haven't lined up behind her—they've been actively looking for other potential candidates, among them retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks and Florida House Speaker Allan Bense. Karl Rove, White House senior policy adviser and deputy chief of staff, has gotten personally involved in recruiting Bense, according to Republicans quoted by the Orlando Sentinel. This week, Bense went to Washington to meet with Rove and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Elisabeth Dole. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, meanwhile, has said that Bense would "be an awesome candidate if he decides to run; he's been a spectacular speaker." When asked about Harris, the governor has displayed a notable lack of enthusiasm, often talking as if she might not really be running.

Republicans seem to want Harris out of the race because they don't think she can win. Two recent polls showed Harris trailing Nelson by 17 points and 12 points respectively, even though the incumbent is considered vulnerable. Republicans may well worry that Harris, who remains a polarizing figure, could not only lose an important race but also hurt other GOP candidates in Florida, and possibly around the nation. Democrats have already tried to take advantage; a recent e-mail fund-raising plea from the liberal group America Coming Together asked ominously, "Remember Katherine Harris of Florida in 2000? Now imagine Senator Katherine Harris."

Despite the pressure from on high, Harris doesn't seem inclined to play the good soldier this time. "We're absolutely in the race," Adam Goodman, her political consultant, told me. Harris is a powerful fund-raiser, and she will be tough to beat in a primary, whatever Jeb Bush and the White House do. And if Bense were to take out Harris, it won't be easy for him to topple Nelson. Bense has little name recognition in Florida—as he told the Sentinel, "Outside of Panama City and a four-block radius around the Capitol, I'm an unknown person"—and he did even more poorly than Harris in one of the recent polls, coming in on the losing end of a 55-26 split. His defenders say he'll rise in the polls as voters get to know him. But Harris would likely also improve her standing as Florida voters begin responding to her campaign ads rather than judging her by the lingering memory of 2000. It's possible that Bense might be a better candidate than Harris in a general election—she is not, truth be told, considered a particularly competent politician in the state. But she has never lost a race, and the case for Bense is far from a slam-dunk.

Yet Jeb and George W. are apparently kicking Harris to the curb without the slightest reservation. Considering that without her, the president might be back on his ranch telling stories about the time he came this close to beating Al Gore, the Bush brothers' disaffection for Harris more than undercuts the president's legendary reputation for loyalty.

Certainly, many of the people who have stood by the president have been rewarded: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who has been with Bush since he was Texas governor, rose on the strength of his allegiance to the president, as well as his willingness to risk his neck for Bush. Condoleezza Rice went before the 9/11 commission to defend the president during the 2004 presidential campaign, took perhaps the most humiliating hits of her career, and was promptly promoted to Secretary of State.

But Harris is a better test of Bush fealty than Gonzales or Rice. In promoting them, Bush did himself and his party a favor—he put a Hispanic and an African-American into high-profile positions at a time when the party wanted to appear more inclusive. Standing by someone you like when it's politically expedient isn't a powerful show of loyalty; standing by someone you owe, regardless of the expediencies, is. Maybe another carrot is being dangled before Harris if she steps out of the Senate race. But if she goes for it, she's a fool. The evidence suggests her loyalty won't ever be repaid in kind.

Brian Montopoli is a reporter with Columbia Journalism Review's CJR Daily.

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