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State Senate President Mike Haridopolos drops out of race for U.S. Senate

Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos' star-crossed campaign for U.S. Senate ended unexpectedly Monday morning, following months of missteps and the recent departure of his two top staffers.

Haridopolos said he underestimated the difficulties of running for the U.S. Senate and running the state Senate with the first legislative committee weeks scheduled for September.

"It became increasingly clear to me, and those around me, that the responsibilities I was managing on both fronts are in conflict. I truly believed I could handle both jobs, but I was wrong. Now I am determined to make it right," said Haridopolos, a Republican.

"Today, I am announcing that I will no longer be a candidate for the United States Senate, nor will I seek any other office this year or next. Instead, I am rededicating myself to finishing the job you sent me to do here in Florida," he said.

The Senate field now includes Adam Hasner, George LeMieux, Mike McCalister and Craig Miller, the latest entry into a race. The Republicans are vying to take on incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in November 2012.

At this early stage, it's unclear who benefits from Haridopolos' departure in the wide-open race where no candidate has clearly distinguished himself. LeMieux sought to capitalize on the news first, posting on Twitter that he invited any of Haridopolos' supporters to back his campaign. He also used the resignation as a fundraising pitch — as did Hasner, who blasted LeMieux for his associations with former Gov. Charlie Crist.

Republican consultant Brett Doster said Hasner should benefit in the long run because he can now more easily liken his campaign to the race of Sen. Marco Rubio.

"With Haridopolos out, Hasner can more easily reshape this race as a repeat of the Crist vs. Rubio fight," he said. "And the similarities are striking."

The announcement by Haridopolos, who had a series of public-relations stumbles magnified by his Senate presidency, followed last week's departure of longtime campaign adviser Pat Bainter and his campaign manager, Tim Baker. Bainter wouldn't comment. Baker had issued a statement last week saying the campaign was in good shape.

Now Haridopolos plans to refund donor dollars after paying off campaign debts.

Haridopolos made his decision to drop out over the weekend as his family celebrated his father's 80th birthday. He said he was surprised by the "level of vitriol" during the legislative session, which ended in May, and the fact that virtually every move he made was viewed through the political lens of his U.S. Senate campaign — and then questioned and attacked.

Haridopolos was primed for even more bad news. In August, he could be deposed in the criminal case against former Republican Party of Florida chairman Jim Greer, who alleges the state fraud charges against him were part of a conspiracy by top Republicans, including Haridopolos. Greer says his fellow Republicans wanted to avoid paying him $124,000 in consulting fees.

Prior to the criminal complaint against Greer, Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon had signed a secret severance contract with Greer that promised him the fees. During the secret talks, Greer's lawyers say, the legislative leaders used go-betweens — including Bainter. Greer's go-between, Seminole County Republican Jim Stelling, said in a recent deposition that Bainter offered a $200,000 payment to make Greer go away.

"It's the right thing to do," Bainter said, according to Stelling. Bainter would not return calls.

Greer's lawyer, Cheney Mason, suggested that Bainter's departure from Haridopolos' campaign was tied to the criminal case.

"Some of the rats are leaving the ship because they won't lie under oath," Mason said. "I'm going to depose these political leaders involved in the conspiracy against Greer and give them an opportunity to perjure themselves."

The Greer situation was an embarrassment for Haridopolos, who denied signing the contract until Greer released it publicly in March 2010.

Later that year, as Haridopolos took over the reins of the Senate, he ran into a buzzsaw of controversy as he began laying off longtime staffers and hiring his friends and political acquaintances onto the Senate payroll, including future campaign adviser Arlene DiBenigno.

Before the 2011 session started, Haridopolos spent time defending an unusual $152,000 book deal with his former employer, Brevard Community College. Major universities, let alone community colleges, seldom pay professors to write books.

The book, Florida Legislative History and Processes, was full of such common-sense advice that Democrats mocked it by producing a coloring book — a maneuver that bothered Haridopolos, who warns candidates in his book about the challenges of running for higher office.

As the spring legislative session started, Haridopolos became the first sitting Senate president in Florida history to be admonished by his own chamber because he repeatedly failed to properly detail his finances on constitutionally mandated disclosure forms.

Haridopolos also had trouble controlling the Senate. He promised Republicans he would bring an immigration reform package that would require employers to verify the work status of employers by using the e-Verify system. Yet his own Senate killed the measure — after he chose two bill sponsors who opposed it. Then, at session's end, the Senate revolted over the way the House appeared to be calling the shots. The session went into an embarrassing overtime that ended in the wee hours.

Haridopolos found the most success in raising money. He pulled in $2.5 million in the first three months of the year. But in the second quarter, his haul was cut by nearly one-third to $900,000.

"Haridopolos wanted to be the grass roots guy and nobody bought it," said Apryl Marie Fogel, a Republican consultant and grass roots organizer from Melbourne. "It's very hard to say, 'I'm your grass roots guy, don't mind the $3 million I've got in the bank from special interests.' "

Earlier this month, the Merritt Island Republican lost the Space Coast Tea Party straw poll in his own back yard. Before that, a conservative radio show host hung up on him when he refused to say whether or not he would vote for the congressional Republican plan to reform and cut Medicare.

After three tries, his campaign finally released a statement saying he would oppose the so-called "Ryan Plan" — the only Republican Senate candidate to do so.

Then, this summer, his Senate chief of staff, Steve MacNamara, spokesman David Bishop and adviser Chris Finkbinder announced plans to leave.

Meantime, his campaign began to fall apart as Haridopolos' wife, Stephanie Haridopolos, and her friend, DiBenigno, began to take more control from Baker and Bainter. Both announced they were leaving late Thursday. DiBenigno took over.

Baker said Haridopolos didn't want a replay of this year's session meltdown and all the problems that affected the senators who had helped make him Senate president.

"I can't do that to my colleagues," Haridopolos told Baker.

State Senate President Mike Haridopolos drops out of race for U.S. Senate 07/18/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 12:30am]
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