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Poll Numbers for Katherine Harris Raise Electability Issue

Republicans from Washington, D.C., to Tallahassee continue to worry about the Senate candidacy of Rep. Katherine Harris, the two-term Republican from Sarasota.

They worry that she can’t beat Sen. Bill Nelson (D), and that her candidacy will boost Democratic fundraising and turnout in 2006. [IMGCAP(1)]

Two unreleased polls, conducted in April and early May by reputable Republican survey research firms, found as many Florida voters with an unfavorable view of the Congresswoman as those who regarded her favorably.

One survey had Harris’s favorable rating at 32 percent and her unfavorable rating at 33 percent. The other had her favorable rating at 35 percent and her unfavorable at 34 percent.

Both surveys found Harris liked by Republicans and hated by Democrats. But among the pivotal group of independents, the Congresswoman’s numbers were terrible. In one of the surveys, 25 percent of independents had a favorable view of the Congresswoman, while a stunning 40 percent had an unfavorable view.

Party strategists say they’ve never seen a Senate hopeful begin a race with such poor favorable-to-unfavorable numbers, especially among independents. And they see “no way” that she can ultimately win starting from where she does.

“It’s not like I started out as anti-Katherine Harris,” one party insider told me. “If anything, I thought the media treated her unfairly. I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. But, with her numbers, it would take something truly extraordinary for us to win the seat with her as our nominee.”

While allies of Harris portray her high statewide name identification as an asset, several GOP operatives take a very different view. They are concerned that it is a liability, because her negatives are already high among independents, and because it is difficult to change opinions once they have formed.

Other statewide candidates have either much lower total name ID or a much better favorable-to-unfavorable ratio than Harris.

For example, in the survey that showed Harris with a 32 percent favorable/33 percent unfavorable name ID, Nelson’s ID was 45 percent favorable/14 percent unfavorable, and Republican Gov. Jeb Bush’s was 62 percent favorable/34 percent unfavorable.

Three current Republican statewide officeholders running for governor had “unfavorable” ratings ranging from 4 percent to 13 percent, meaning that they have the potential to improve their standing with voters.

GOP operatives began wooing Florida House of Representatives Speaker Allan Bense to run against Nelson well before Harris made her decision to enter the Senate race. Bense, who is called “an ideal candidate” by one observer, is from North Florida and is said to be personable, smart and widely liked by his colleagues and by Gov. Bush. He is expected to make a final decision very soon.

While many GOP insiders initially figured that Harris would be unbeatable in a primary, they are now changing their tune.

The Congresswoman starts with the support of rank-and-file Republicans who remember her role in the election of George W. Bush in 2000. But important national and state GOP insiders remain critical of her Senate plans.

Gov. Bush, the White House and the National Republican Senatorial Committee apparently are all less than enthusiastic about Harris’ Senate bid, and they have all tried to dissuade her from making the race. While none of the major state or national Republicans has at this point promised to take sides in a competitive Senate primary, all indications are that some would back Bense, either publicly or privately.

One Republican consultant who knows the state well but is not involved with Harris’ bid believes Bense can beat Harris because grassroots Republicans think she is something that she is not.

“She’s loved by conservative Republicans right now, while moderates and Democrats can’t stand her,” the consultant told me. “But she’s really a moderate herself. Her base is conservative Republicans because of the 2000 election. She’ll lose them [when they find out that she is a moderate], yet she’ll never get moderate voters.”

Allies of the Congresswoman hold a far different view of her prospects. They note that while an April Tarrance Group survey for Harris found her “favorable” and ”unfavorable” ratings almost identical, her “favorable” rating jumped up to 62 percent after respondents were given six pieces of positive information about her accomplishments.

Supporters of Harris also argue that Republicans’ intense support of her is a huge asset, since a high GOP turnout on Election Day would not only help Harris defeat Nelson but would also help other Republicans for office in the state.

Personally, I’m not a fan of informational questions to test the public’s fluidity of opinion, which is what the Tarrance Group survey did. I don’t believe that that methodology accurately reflects the dynamics of a campaign, so I’m not at all persuaded by it. Obviously, if you give people information in a vacuum, they are likely to be moved by it.

A Bense candidacy, which would likely draw considerable support from key national and Florida Republicans, could shake things up in the Sunshine State. Harris would start ahead, but she’d face a much more difficult primary fight than her allies now argue, including a battle on where she has stood on issues through the years.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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