Florida politics key to next presidency - again

Posted: Apr 13, 2005 12:00 AM

You can hardly pick up a paper these days without stumbling across yet another story on who likely will be elected president more than three years from now.

It's hard to care this far out, but those so attuned would do well to skip the speculation and watch Florida in 2006. The nation's fourth-largest and perhaps most politically diverse state, Florida has replaced California as the new Petri dish. What happens there may be the best indicator for what will happen in the rest of the country come election time.

And 2006 is an especially significant year for Democrats, who this time have a fair shot at the governorship. As the unofficial roster goes, three Democrats and three Republicans likely will run.

The key to that race, however - and therefore to the 2008 presidential race - may lie with the woman who is second only to Hillary Clinton as a political lightning rod.

Think Election 2000, Palm Beach County, hanging chads, the Supreme Court . and the mind quickly finds Katherine Harris, then Florida's secretary of state and now U.S. congresswoman, who reportedly is interested in trying to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.

If you're a Republican, Harris is the attractive granddaughter of a Florida citrus pioneer who held fast against hurricane-strength political winds to keep order during a virulent presidential race. If you're a Democrat, Harris is Cruella De Vil and the Spawn of Satan who helped steal the 2000 election from Al Gore and handed the presidency to George W. Bush.

If you're a Democrat, you get down on your knees three times a day and pray that Katherine Harris will run for the U.S. Senate in 2006 because nothing - not a terrorist attack on ACLU headquarters or, heaven forbid, a price hike on tattoo ink - could energize Democrats the way a Harris candidacy would.

If you're a Republican, you pray equally fervently that Harris will discover a deep and impatient passion for Tibetan architecture and Himalayan backpacking. You find yourself Googling for Sherpas in your spare time.

We'll soon enough find out whose prayers get answered, but backroom wisdom is that Harris will run. And why not? She wanted to run for Senate in 2004, but the White House wanted to run former U.S. Housing Secretary Mel Martinez. Fast-forward to 2006, and it's Harris' turn.

Republicans are in a jam with Harris because, though she poses a clear risk, they can't really get rid of her. No one will run against her in the primary because she's an icon, certain to win the nomination. Moreover, she's hugely important as a party fundraiser and is blessed by birth and marriage with a small treasury of her own.

Even offering her the always-handy compensation prize of an ambassadorship is problematic because she'd have to go through the congressional approval process. As one Democratic observer puts it: "Nobody wants to replay the 2000 election under oath."

Best bets are she'll win the nomination and she'll run, which means the Democratic machinery will kick in to advance a Democrat for governor. Among those who have declared their candidacy are:

Rod Smith, who was a state prosecutor in Gainesville and then became a state senator. He is said to be the lobbyists' favorite.

Jim Davis, a congressman from Tampa who is well regarded, though is considered only slightly more exciting than paint.

A third likely candidate, who has not declared officially, is Scott Maddox, a former Tallahassee mayor who three years ago ran for attorney general unsuccessfully but well - within 30,000 votes in the primary.

Among Republicans, the favored candidate seems to be Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist. Also running, as usual, is Florida Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, who has run in every statewide election since 1988, including twice for governor. And, finally, Florida Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings from Orlando, who served as president of the state senate from 1996 to 2000.

Who will win is anyone's guess, but some of the best guessers in the trenches are betting the governor's race will come down to Crist and Maddox. Not to minimize anyone's unique qualifications for the job, but Katherine Harris' name on the same ballot cannot be excluded as a major factor whatever the outcome.

If Harris wins, speculation is that Republicans will make a clean sweep and keep the White House come 2008. If she loses, Floridians probably will be saying Gov. Maddox and the rest of us will be saying President Clinton again.

Madam President, that is.