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Florida Senate Battle Shapes Up as 2004’s Roller-Coaster Race

Bob Graham was running for re-election. Then he was running for president. Then some of us thought he was running for re-election. Then he told us he wasn’t. [IMGCAP(1)]

But that’s OK, because Rep. Mark Foley (R) was absolutely, positively, unquestionably running for the Republican Senate nomination. Until, of course, he wasn’t. Ditto for Rep. Allen Boyd (D).

Now, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, who absolutely, positively, unquestionably is NOT running for the Senate, might be running … if he decides to change his mind.

Welcome to Florida’s U.S. Senate race. Or as I like to call it, The Land of Oz.

The GOP field currently includes three credible candidates: Daniel Webster (no, not the one who served in Congress as a Whig in the 19th century), Bill McCollum (He’s Baaaack!) and Johnnie Byrd.

Webster is a member of the state Senate, and Byrd is the Speaker of the state House. McCollum, of course, is the former Orlando-area Congressman who lost the 2000 Senate race.

Rep. Katherine Harris, the former Florida secretary of state whom Democrats still hold responsible for George W. Bush’s victory in Florida in 2002, is mentioned as a possible candidate. But she certainly didn’t sound like a candidate when I talked with her last week.

“I’ve never been happier in the House. I love it in the House,” she insisted.

But Harris says that Graham’s announcement has produced an outpouring of calls urging her to run, and she clearly has at least re-opened the matter in her own mind. So far, that’s about as far as she has gone.

“My husband and I are just starting to talk about this now,” she acknowledged, the same day that two newspapers reported prematurely that she would be entering the contest.

Observers of Florida politics, regardless of party or ideology, regard the Congresswoman as a formidable primary candidate who would immediately become the party’s frontrunner if she jumped in.

But GOP strategists who are familiar with the state insist that a Harris candidacy would do nothing but cause problems for President Bush, who may well need to carry the state to win re-election.

“Given what happened in 2000, the fewer reminders of that the better,” said one well-placed Republican close to Bush’s political operation.

When asked about speculation that her candidacy would undermine the president’s chances of winning the state, Harris responded that “there is no evidence” that she would harm Bush’s prospects in the state.

Would the former Florida secretary of state talk to the White House about a potential 2004 Senate bid and its impact on President Bush before making a final decision herself? “Without question,” she said. “I deeply care about the president’s re-election.”

And if she does end up running statewide? “People have been misled by the far left about the [2000] election,” she told me, adding, “I look forward to telling the truth about [it].”

I don’t know what the Congresswoman will decide about running statewide in 2004, especially now that senior Republican strategists are making yet another run at HUD Secretary Martinez to enter the Florida Senate race. But I tend to think Harris would complicate things immensely for Bush in the Sunshine State and, perhaps, nationally.

Yes, the country is already polarized in partisan terms, but imagine how awkward it would be for the president to campaign in Florida with (or even without) Harris if she was the Republican nominee. Every media report would make note of her candidacy, which would overshadow Bush’s achievements and message in the state.

While the White House hasn’t delivered a big Senate fish this cycle the way it was able to in 2002, Martinez would be a big, big catch. Personable, well-connected in D.C. and in the state and certainly able to raise a considerable campaign war chest, the secretary would be the kind of candidate Republicans could rally around.

Meanwhile, the Democrats have their own donnybrook under way. Rep. Peter Deutsch’s main goal seems to be to eviscerate Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas. You get the feeling that if Deutsch could reach down Penelas’ throat and pull out the mayor’s intestines, he would do so.

While the two Democrats from the Southeast hammer each other, former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor continues to receive pretty good reviews and benefit from the widely held perception that her gender, statewide experience and Central Florida political base make her a formidable contender for her party’s nomination.

But Castor’s long-term prospects would depend, of course, on her ability to raise enough campaign cash to compete with Deutsch’s money and Penelas’ Hispanic base.

Florida appears likely to be one of the more interesting Senate races in the country, a tossup that will depend on the eventual nominees and the quality of the campaigns. But for now, it’s primarily entertaining, a state in utter political confusion.

Stuart Rothenberg is the editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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