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Harris "grass fire' hits county

U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris brought her grass roots Senate campaign to Hernando County on Saturday night, the first of two promised stops in the county.

Her visit to the county Republican Executive Committee's annual Lincoln Day Dinner capped 16 hours of campaigning in Sarasota, Manatee, Pasco and Hillsborough counties. The whirlwind weekend tour is part of Harris' campaign strategy in which she has promised to visit each of Florida's 67 counties at least twice before the September primary election.

Harris pulled up to the Palace Grand on U.S. 19 shortly before 7 p.m., clutching speech notes she had scribbled during the drive. "The purpose of this tour is to light a grass fire of support throughout the state," she said, before her advance staff whisked her upstairs to a freshly steamed suit that waited for her third change of the day.

Less than half an hour later, Harris descended from the bridal suite in a glass elevator to the applause of more than 200 supporters. "I've never had such a glorious entrance as that elevator," she said later.

The $45-a-plate event and a raffle helped raise $10,000 for the county's Republicans, said Ana Trinque, chairwoman of Hernando's Republican Executive Committee. Raffle prizes included Conair Body Benefits Thermal Spa, a bottle of Absolut raspberry vodka and a volume of the collected congressional tributes to the late former President Ronald Reagan donated by U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville.

Harris lauded the achievements of Reagan and Abraham Lincoln, but credited her supporters with heroism of their own. "Every day, day in and day out, you are our unsung heroes," Harris told the crowd.

The Sarasota Republican is perhaps best known for her role in helping secure the state's election of George W. Bush in the contentious 2000 presidential race, when she was Florida's secretary of state. She parlayed her notoriety into her first winning congressional bid in 2002.

Despite her national media profile, her Senate campaign has struggled since she announced her candidacy last summer. Harris's campaign fundraising lags behind incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, the last Democrat elected to statewide office. She has consistently trailed Nelson in the polls.

In addition, Harris, 49, has battled belated and lukewarm support from the GOP powerful, while Nelson enjoys the support of his party's headliners, including former Vice President Al Gore and U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-New York.

Saturday's festivities showed scant evidence of any inner party rifts, with Republicans clearly closing ranks behind her.

"I like Katherine Harris, and I think she has a lot of guts," Trinque said.

Early in Harris's campaign, high-ranking state Republicans, including Gov. Jeb Bush, ventured tepid support. In January, Bush changed course, voicing his "strong support" for Harris and signaling other fence-straddlers to back the second-term congresswoman.

"The governor coming out the other day pretty much summed up the general feeling of the party at this point," said state Rep. Dave Russell, R-Brooksville. Russell said he waited to endorse a candidate until he was sure his colleague, state House Speaker Allan Bense, would not run. "As soon as he decided not to run, I threw my support to Katherine," Russell said.

Harris's campaign staff hopes to capitalize on small local events and spark a "grass fire" of word-of-mouth support throughout the state. While the Lincoln Day Dinner was a gala event attended by hundreds of supporters, most of her grassroots campaign stops involve smaller groups of 15 to 20, said Morgan Dobbs, a Harris campaign spokeswoman.

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6127.

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