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GOP Race for Harris’ Seat Intensifies

While Rep. Katherine Harris’ (R-Fla.) 2006 Senate prospects have been the subject of much recent debate in Washington, D.C., the race to succeed her back in the Sarasota-based 13th district is taking shape anyway.

Former Sarasota County Republican Chairman Tramm Hudson and auto dealer Vern Buchanan appear to be the leading contenders for the GOP nod and both men have considerable personal resources to devote to the race.

State Rep. Nancy Detert, a GOP moderate who favors abortion rights, is also running and could end up as the ultimate beneficiary in a nasty, free-spending battle between Hudson and Buchanan. The state has no runoff election in 2006 and whoever wins a plurality of votes in next year’s September primary will be the nominee.

Hudson got the earliest start out of the gate, announcing his candidacy and several key endorsements as soon as Harris said that she would run for Senate in 2006. He has the backing of Harris’ immediate predecessors: former Reps. Dan Miller (R) and Andy Ireland (R), who held the seat for a combined total of 26 years before she won it in 2002.

Hudson also raised more than $150,000 for his campaign in the two weeks before the second quarter fundraising deadline closed Thursday.

“It’s just been really overwhelming,” Hudson said in an interview Friday of the early support he’s received.

But allies of Buchanan, who announced his bid last week, point to his own early endorsement coup while promising there are more to follow.

Last week, state Rep. Bill Galvano (R) dropped out of the race and endorsed Buchanan. Galvano had been the only candidate running from Manatee County. Buchanan, Hudson and Detert are all from Sarasota County.

“I think the Galvano endorsement was just the tip of the iceberg,” said Buchanan strategist Adam Goodman, who predicted that within four to six weeks the endorsement gap between the two candidates would be erased.

The 13th district includes all of Sarasota, Hardee and DeSoto counties plus a large chunk of Manatee and a small portion of Charlotte.

Goodman estimated that Sarasota voters would account for about 55 percent of the primary electorate, while Manatee would make up 40 percent.

A candidate from Manatee could still come forward, possibly with a geographical advantage over the splintered Sarasota contenders. That happened in 1992, when Miller emerged from a primary crowded with Sarasota candidates.

Manatee County Republican Party Chairman Mark Flanagan, a former state Representative, and Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash are also contemplating running.

But Hudson said that the district had historically never taken a parochial approach to Congressional representation and he noted that while Miller is from Manatee, Ireland is from Sarasota, as is Harris.

“The issues that are important in Sarasota County are the same that are in important in Manatee,” Hudson said. “They really don’t just stop there at the county line.”

Hudson, who just ended a six-year stint as county GOP chairman, is currently West Florida division executive of RBC Centura, overseeing an $850 million bank with 14 offices.

He was a fundraising “pioneer” for President Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign but also lost a bid to become state committeeman last year.

Hudson traveled to Washington last month for meetings and a “meet and greet” with members of the K Street community arranged by former Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), a close friend of Hudson’s.

Hudson has hired pollster Dave Sackett of the Tarrance Group and Florida-based political consultant Mac Stevenson, who has also worked for Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.).

He is also working with Fairfax, Va. based media consultant Carlyle Gregory of the Carlyle Gregory Company and fundraiser Nancy Bocskor, who once did finance work for Miller.

Hudson estimated that the primary could ultimately cost between $1 million and $1.5 million. The district spans two media markets, Tampa Bay and Sarasota/Bradenton.

He stressed that his experience leading the county party taught him the importance of raising money early and being well-funded.

“I’m committed to raising the money to have a well-financed campaign and to the extent I need to put in resources to make it work, I will do that,” Hudson said.

Buchanan, the president and CEO of Sarasota-based Buchanan Automotive Group and the chairman of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, also has vast personal resources and the ability to spend freely in the contest.

Moreover, Goodman said that Buchanan’s personal story and profile is what will ultimately win voters over.

“He is fresh. He is unwaveringly conservative, unwaveringly pro-business. He is a rags to riches story,” Goodman said, noting the candidate’s working class roots. “He’s really kind of lived the American Dream … and that is going to really be a big part of his appeal.”

Buchanan served as now-Sen. Mel Martinez’s (R-Fla.) finance chairman during his 2004 Senate campaign and has a close link to Harris through Goodman, who has previously worked for the Congresswoman and is also advising her Senate campaign.

“All I can say to you … is that Vern and Katherine are very good friends,” Goodman said.

While some in the party establishment, including White House and National Republican Senatorial Committee strategists, are actively recruiting a Senate primary challenger to Harris, both Hudson and Buchanan’s camps expressed confidence that Harris is not about to turn back.

“I’m clearly supporting Katherine Harris for the U.S. Senate,” Hudson said. “She’s firmly committed to the race. I would not underestimate Katherine Harris.”

Both Hudson and Buchanan considered running for the 13th district seat when Miller retired in 2002 but deferred to Harris.

Although the district tilts decidedly toward the GOP, Democrats are vowing to make the open-seat contest competitive. Harris has won just 55 percent of the vote in the 13th the past two elections, a sign Democrats believe indicates that voters are trending their way.

Attorney Jan Schneider, retired banking executive Christine Jennings and attorney Michael LaFevers are all seeking the Democratic nomination.

Jennings was the preferred choice of national Democrats in 2004 but she lost the primary to Schneider, who has been defeated by Harris in the past two general elections.

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