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Katherine Harris: Martha Mitchell Redux?

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Another week, another mis-step by the volatile, what'll-she-do-next Katherine Harris. This time, a false claim of support from four fellow-Floridians in Congress for her bid to unseat Democrat Bill Nelson in the U.S. Senate.

It turns out not only that the four have not endorsed Harris, but that one of them has actually signed on with another Republican candidate for the nomination.

So, with the Sept. 5 primary less than three weeks away, questions about Harris's credibility - not to mention her sanity - continue, as they say, to swirl. In fact, there's so much swirling going on that it harkens back to the days of Martha Mitchell.

Remember Martha? She was the wife of Richard Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell. When Nixon lost control of the Watergate investigation, it didn't take Martha long to realize that her husband - the Man Who Knew Too Much -- would become Nixon's chief fall guy.

So Martha started telling what she knew -- or claimed to know -- about Watergate, the coverup, etc., and about Nixon's role in it all. Her clandestine calls to reporters, often made from her bathroom telephone, provided lots of juicy headlines and a few good leads on the story.

But whether or not she spoke the full truth, Martha Mitchell's efforts went for naught. Her disgraced husband wound up doing time for Watergate after all, while Nixon took early retirement in the New Jersey suburbs.

But by that time, Martha had lost even more. Once it was clear that not even the gruff attorney general could shut his wife up, Nixon's men had taken the next-best route: character assassination. They launched a whispering campaign about her "drinking problem," and openly questioned her sanity. (She claimed they once even tried to silence her forcibly with sedatives.)

To no one's surprise -- except possibly her own -- Martha lost her marriage, too. John Mitchell left his wife in 1973, not long after she went public with her claims. Discovering that her man was more loyal to the White House than to his own house-mate must have stung. Maybe it was the last straw. Martha Mitchell died alone, of bone marrow cancer, three years after the separation, at the age of 57.

What Katherine Harris and Martha Mitchell have in common, it would seem, is that both had/have the goods on a president. In Mitchell's case, it was Watergate. With Harris it's the 2000 election and what role, if any, the George W. Bush campaign played in getting thousands of likely Al Gore voters purged from Florida's rolls.

The Harris case has its own nuances, of course. Most important, unlike Martha Mitchell, Harris wasn't merely a spectator to the action. As Florida's secretary of state in 2000, she presumably took part in whatever hanky-panky might have gone down in that year's election.

So far Harris has not been Martha Mitchell-ized by her party - at least not as brutally. For one thing, she's done a good job of sabotaging herself, pulling gaff after gaff in this laughable campaign. The worst she has suffered at the hands of her Republican "friends" - from staff members up to Governor Jeb Bush -- is their abandonment, mostly without criticism, of her campaign.

But the stakes are getting higher. Harris has been questioned in the continuing investigation of defense contractor Mitchell Wade, a principal in the Duke Cunningham scandal. If she is or becomes a target of the probe, that could lead not only to the end of her run for the Senate, but to scandal or worse.

So Republicans in Florida and at the White House have to be worried, and at odds over the best way to go with this loose canon. They could continue the kid-glove treatment even as they flee from Harris's side and hope she stays loyal to her party in return. But, loose canons being what they are, there's no guarantee of that.

Or they could make a pre-emptive strike and dismiss Harris publicly as a wacko - a la Martha Mitchell -- in case she loses the nomination and decides to open up on the 2000 voter purge. But that would be even more dangerous, especially if she winds up charged in the Wade investigation.

Visions of a Cunningham-style downfall might well make short work of Harris's party loyalty. Who knows what names she would name, and what proof she might be able to provide?

If it comes to that, not even their best attempts to Martha Mitchell-ize Katherine Harris would put the Republicans out of jeopardy at the polls this year or, for that matter, in2008.

The next few weeks should be interesting, to say the least.