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Calling All Candidates

In the few certifiably hot 2006 Senate races, leaders in both parties are trying madly to expand the playing field. Two of the most interesting recent developments are in contests involving Nelsons -- Democratic Sens. Bill in Florida and Ben in Nebraska.

In Florida, GOP Rep. Katherine Harris must feel like she gets no respect. Despite the fact that the former Florida secretary of state, who became a household name during the 2000 presidential recount, has announced her candidacy for the Republican nomination to take on Bill Nelson, GOP strategists haven't let up in their search for an alternative candidate. State House Speaker Allan Bense came to Washington this week and met with White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Elizabeth Dole, reportedly to discuss a possible Senate bid.

Republican leaders acknowledge Harris's popularity among the party faithful, but they believe that she is too polarizing a figure to win a general election. Harris wanted to run for the Senate last year, but party leaders dissuaded her because they felt that former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez was a stronger candidate.

GOP insiders say that Harris walked away in 2004 feeling that she had a commitment from the party to support her candidacy in 2006. Whether that commitment was actually made or merely implied depends upon whom one talks to. But no one was going to keep Harris from running this time.

Bense, 53, hails from Panama City and is in his fourth two-year term in the House -- his last, under the chamber's term limitations. Just before Harris's announcement, Gov. Jeb Bush was quoted as saying, "I have enormous respect for Speaker Bense. He is a statesman, and we share a common philosophy.... If he decides to run, he'd be an awesome candidate." The statement was widely interpreted, correctly or not, as a slap at Harris.

A June 14-16 Mason-Dixon Opinion Research poll of 625 registered voters for Florida media outlets showed Nelson beating Harris by 17 points, 53 percent to 36 percent. Nelson's favorable/unfavorable ratings were 44 percent to 10 percent, while Harris's were 32 percent to 30 percent.

Meanwhile in Nebraska, Ben Nelson's bid for a second term has largely been off the radar screen since early this year when President Bush tapped popular Gov. Mike Johanns, who was reportedly gearing up for a Senate race, to be secretary of Agriculture. Soon after, Rep. Tom Osborne announced that he was more interested in running for Nebraska governor than for the Senate.

With the June 28 announcement by David Kramer, a lawyer and the immediate past chairman of the state Republican Party, that he will seek the Senate nomination, this race seems likely to get more interesting. A Nebraska native, Kramer, 40, has never sought office before, but he managed the campaigns for successful bond issues to fund public education and to build a new convention center and arena in Omaha. He served as state party chairman from 2001 until early this year.

Kramer faces at least one GOP primary opponent, former state Attorney General Don Stenberg, who announced his candidacy in April. Stenberg sought his party's Senate nomination in 1996, but he was upset in the primary by political newcomer Chuck Hagel, who went on to also upset then-Gov. Nelson in the general election. Stenberg was the party's nominee in 2000, losing to Nelson by just 15,000 votes despite running a weak and underfunded campaign. Today, Stenberg probably has a wide lead for the nomination, but Kramer can catch up if he can effectively make the case that he is more electable.

Nebraska is as red a state as they come. Bush won it by 33 points in 2004, and all of the statewide elected officials are Republicans. Nelson is the only Democrat in the congressional delegation. Republicans argue that his support is wide but very shallow.

Democrats concede that the state is strongly Republican, but they point to Nelson's two terms as governor and the incumbent's ability to work across party lines as evidence that he can overcome the state's heavy GOP tilt.

Kramer makes a very strong first impression and has the makings of a solid candidate. His challenge now is to prove that he can raise the money to compete.

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