Florida Rep. Katherine Harris, once the darling of the GOP, is struggling to right her wobbly campaign for the U.S. Senate as she fends off doomsayers from an unexpected source: her own party.
Just last week, the state's top Republican, Gov. Jeb Bush, implied that Harris is ignoring sound advice to her own detriment.
"The campaign can't be about her. It has to be about Bill Nelson and the future of our state and so far, she asked my advice and I gave her that exact advice and it's gotten worse since," Bush told reporters, referring to her opponent, the incumbent Democratic senator.
On Monday, the influential conservative magazine National Review urged Harris to drop out of the race.
"For the good of her party, and for the good of her own reputation, she should withdraw from the race as soon as possible and allow another Republican to have a chance at victory," the editors wrote.
But her supporters say Harris is a good fit for Florida.
"Do we want a senator who's going to be walking with the mainstream of Florida voters — who will keep taxes low, the economy growing, voting with the mainstream — or do we want someone who will say one thing when he's down in Florida and then go to DC and kowtow to the liberal left?" asked Jeff Sadosky, spokesman of the Republican Party of Florida.
Still, Harris' quest for a Senate seat is looking more quixotic by the day. A Mason-Dixon poll released March 29 found that voters favored Nelson, considered a moderate Democrat, 51 to 35 percent — with Nelson's approval/disapproval rating at 49/14 percent.
Thanks to her role in the 2000 presidential election recount, Harris' name is inextricably linked to President Bush at a time when Bush's approval ratings are the lowest of his presidency.
Harris has also been tied to lobbying scandals, the poison pill of this year's midterm elections. Mitchell Wade, who pleaded guilty to bribing disgraced California Rep. Randy Cunningham, admitted in February to funneling $32,000 in illegal contributions to Harris' campaign. Harris denied knowing the donations were illegal and gave the money to charity.
GOP leaders both privately and publicly have called for Harris to drop out of the race. But by most accounts, the governor is not the only Republican whose advice Harris has rejected.
After an exodus of core staffers earlier this month, Harris is starting over with a new campaign team just seven months before the November vote.
"Katherine wasn't listening to us and didn't agree on the direction of the campaign," Ed Rollins, her former political adviser, told The Associated Press.
Rollins and other key staffers quit the campaign after unsuccessfully urging Harris to drop out. Perhaps the starkest sign that something had truly gone wrong was the departure of Adam Goodman, Harris' trusted confidant and loyal political adviser for more than a decade.
Harris' new spokesman, installed after the previous spokeswoman resigned in recent weeks, denied that Harris was at fault for the high turnover.
"Some folks from the previous staff decided if we were bringing in new folks they didn't want to be part of the team, so they chose to leave," Chris Ingram said.
Most of Harris' former staff dispute that account. Harris is known for being temperamental and moody, former aides say, and her treatment of campaign aides over the course of the race grew steadily worse.
"There's a Latin phrase, res ipsa loquitur. The thing speaks for itself," said Mac Stipanovich, a veteran of Florida politics and former Harris adviser. "There is a problem. Why the staffers can't work with her you have to ask them, but staffer after staffer ... who's worked with her in this campaign cannot stay.
"I mean, if you've ever seen a worse campaign, tell me where," he said.
For those who have been following Harris' campaign, it's difficult to tell which came first: the naysaying from her own party or her campaign's many stops and starts.
The Republican leadership's opposition to Harris' candidacy was known even before she jumped into the race. White House deputy chief of staff and top-dog strategist Karl Rove waved her off; Jeb Bush tried to coax another Republican state official into running against Nelson; and Sen. Elizabeth Dole, chairwoman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, publicly courted former Rep. Joe Scarborough, currently a host on MSNBC.
But none of the party's preferred picks agreed to challenge Harris in the primary, either because they were less well known, wanted to run for other offices or, as in the case of Scarborough, didn't want to quit their day jobs.
Without a ringing endorsement from her own party, Harris has found it difficult to raise funds. With $2.6 million raised as of March 17, Harris announced last month that she would commit a $10 million inheritance from her father, who died in January, to her campaign. Later, she partially retracted that pledge, saying she would sell her assets instead, and dropped $3 million into her campaign coffers.
Meanwhile, Nelson counts more than $10 million in cash on hand, and has enjoyed the fund-raising star power of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., former Sen. John Edwards and former Vice President Al Gore. Nelson has largely been able to stay out of the anti-Harris fray because Republicans and Democratic voters still sore about the 2000 recount seem to be doing all the work for him.
"We're not paying much attention to that," said Chad Clanton, Nelson's campaign manager, of the Harris-centered negative press coverage.
But Nelson can hardly afford to sit back and prop his feet up until November 7. With approval ratings hovering in the high 40s and low 50s, he is vulnerable, most experts say. Plus, seven months is close to a lifetime in electoral politics.
"[Nelson] is the only single statewide Democratic officeholder in a state that has been trending Republican in the last couple years. Everyone is on the same page in that belief," Sadosky said, adding that Nelson's record, not Harris' staff problems, will be the issue in November.
"Nelson is just as bland as buttermilk," said Bill Cotterell, political editor of the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper.
But, Cotterell added, apart from her revolving-door staff issues, Harris has little to show for her one-and-a-half terms in the House.
"There's no Katherine Harris Act or some kind of landmark legislation," he said.
Harris also will undoubtedly galvanize voters still angry about the 2000 presidential election recount and those who are very anti-Bush.
"Privately, a lot of Republicans will tell you they're concerned she will bring out a huge black vote" for Nelson, Cotterell said. "She's become a lightning rod symbol for that voter disenfranchisement. There are a lot of black voters and liberal Democrats who would vote against her in a burning building if they had to."
Picked On for Her Appearance
Some of the baggage that burdens Harris' campaign — specifically, her name and appearance — are factors that are somewhat out of her control.
Harris' face landed on TV sets across the country five years ago, when as Florida's well-connected but obscure secretary of state, she presided over the 2000 presidential recount. Democrats accused her of blocking counties from continuing recounts and handing the presidency to Bush.
But it was Harris' appearance that truly gave her household-name status. Criticized for a seemingly heavy-handed makeup application technique, her face and hair were picked apart by TV pundits, comedians and columnists. Even Bush loyalists couldn't resist.
"Lighten up on the funeral parlor makeup. What's going on with that? It's like Madame Tussaud's," said conservative radio host Laura Ingraham during the recount.
Though Harris underwent a tasteful makeover before her 2002 congressional race, unlike other women in politics, including Hillary Clinton and Harriet Miers, she wasn't able to squelch chatter about her looks. Web sites and blogs that popped up after the recount continue to malign her appearance; the popular Beltway blog Wonkette regularly devotes space to her.
The party shooed Harris away from the Senate race in part because she is a polarizing figure, and in part because it did not think she had the goods to be a senator, Stipanovich said. To be known mainly for her appearance may only exacerbate the gravitas deficit.
"It's a detraction from her desired outcome. The focus should be on her commitment and appropriateness to the position," said Gloria Starr, an image consultant whose client list includes pop group Destiny's Child and former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
After being a shown a series of recent campaign photographs in which Harris is heavily made up and wearing tight-fitting pants and tops, Starr expressed surprise that Harris was running on a conservative Christian Republican platform.
"The last thing a woman needs is to have a man looking at her breasts instead of her face," Starr said. "At best she's got a mixed brand. At worst she's knocked herself out of the game.
"I would absolutely love to work with this woman," Starr added.
While it may be unfair that women in politics suffer more for their appearance than men, Starr said it was simply the name of the game.
"There are damn sure a lot of god-awful ugly men candidates," added Stipanovich. But "the Republican leadership's reservations about her go more to substance, stability, the ability to win. Has she done anything to dispel those doubts?"