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From the Miami Herald archives: The last time Joe Scarborough's name was floated in a Florida Senate race

This story, by Marc Caputo, first ran in the Miami Herald on July 14, 2006, with the headline, "Story of 'Joe's dead intern' began Harris' slide, insiders say." It mentions former Florida Congressman Joe Scarborough, who said Friday he hasn't ruled out running for U.S. Senate in his home state in 2018:

Katherine Harris' floundering U.S. Senate campaign lost its high-level staff again this week and is groping for a message - which doesn't surprise Republican insiders who trace the seeds of her trouble to the story of "Joe's dead intern."

This wasn't any old Joe.

It was Joe Scarborough, host of the prime-time MSNBC show Scarborough Country and a former Pensacola Republican congressman who was courted last summer by national Republicans to run against Harris. But before he could announce he wouldn't, Harris called major donors and suggested Scarborough would have to answer questions about the strange death of a former staff member in 2001, according to two former high-level Harris staff members, a GOP donor and Scarborough.

"That was the first clue that something wasn't right with Katherine Harris, " Scarborough told The Miami Herald in a recent interview, noting that a medical examiner found his staff member's death was natural and not the result of foul play.

Harris, through a spokeswoman, denied Scarborough's account, saying she "would never insinuate publicly or privately" that he did anything untoward.

But her former staff members say they expected her to deny the previously untold anecdote, which they say marked the beginning of the Harris campaign's tailspin. Since then, Harris has been dogged by her connections to an indicted defense contractor and by heavy staff turnover from last fall through Thursday, when five top aides announced their departure a day after her spokesman quit. Her campaign had issued a news release Wednesday suggesting only spokesman Chris Ingram was leaving.


In explaining his decision to leave, campaign manager Glenn Hodas echoed predecessors Jamie Miller and Jim Dornan. Miller had said the campaign wasn't good for Harris' health. Dornan said Harris had been erratic, temperamental and sometimes unfair - and tried to blame him for the "Joe's dead intern" story when a furious Scarborough called, demanding to know what happened.

"This [story] encapsulates everything wrong with her as a candidate, " Dornan said. "She reacted without thinking. She made stuff up. She called people she had no business calling. And when confronted with the insanity of her - I use this term lightly - 'strategy, ' she denied it and tried to blame someone else."

Dornan left the campaign in November. Miller, Republican heavyweight Ed Rollins and media guru Adam Goodman departed in April with a few others.

The latest to leave Thursday with Hodas and Ingram: field director Pat Thomas, deputy field director John Byers, political director Brian Brooks and staff member Stephen Gately. Ingram said he needed to get back to his family and private business, and Hodas said he needed to go home to Illinois-based Hodas and Associates.

"I wish Katherine Harris the best, " Hodas said, "but it appears all the old patterns are repeating themselves: Tantrums. Minor things cause her to blow. She doesn't take advice. Micromanaging to the Nth degree. It's nothing new. But I didn't have the energy to move on with the campaign, considering everything."

A big consideration: polls. Nearly all predict Harris will lose by 20 to 30 percentage points against the incumbent, Democrat Bill Nelson.

But Harris said Republican Party polls show she will win with 53 percent of the vote if Republicans turn out the way they did in 2004 for now-U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez.

"You hear all of this discussion in the media - it's designed to discourage you. Don't let it, " she told a crowd at a June campaign event in OrangePark. "It's designed to drive our polls down. Don't pay attention."

The White House, however, has. It wanted Harris off the ticket in 2004. Strategists feared she would excite a Democratic base still bitter over the 2000 elections when she, as Florida secretary of state, certified George W. Bush as the winner in the botched presidential election.

Harris staff members and supporters say they expected White House support this time around. When given the chance last month to endorse Harris, Republican campaign wizard Karl Rove wouldn't, according to a St. Petersburg Times report.

Gov. Jeb Bush has said that Harris "can't win" and "the campaign can't be about her."

But Bush's prediction might have been self-fulfilling. The governor tried to recruit Allan Bense, speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, to run against Harris in the spring as well as in 2005 - thereby making it tough to raise the big sums needed from well-heeled Republican Party loyalists.

"It definitely hurt fundraising. It drove her crazy, but it didn't take long to get her there, " said Rollins, Harris' former advisor and a top Reagan Republican strategist.


Rollins said he finally resigned after Harris' "story kept changing" with regard to two high-price dinners she had with subsequently-convicted defense contractor Mitchell Wade, from whom she unwittingly accepted $32,000 in laundered campaign contributions. Rollins said Harris met Wade through convicted bribe-taking congressman Duke Cunningham. Harris has pledged to donate the $32,000 to charity.

As questions surfaced about Harris' connections to Wade, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, head of Republican senatorial campaigns, approached Scarborough to run because he was one of the few who could match Harris' star power and fundraising in a Republican primary.

Scarborough, Dornan and Rollins gave the same account: The TV personality called the political aides privately to say he wasn't running - his son didn't want him to - though he needed a few days to tell supporters personally of the decision before it was publicized.

Not fast enough for Harris, who called donors like Pensacola developer Collier Merrill. Merrill told The Miami Herald that Harris suggested Scarborough was going to have trouble when "they start asking questions . . . about that dead girl, " Fort Walton Beach staff member Lori Klausutis.

Dornan said he overheard Harris tell more than one donor: "I don't know what he's thinking when he's got this whole issue of a dead intern on his hands."

Klausutis, 28, was a Scarborough staff member who died July 20, 2001, when she hit her head after experiencing heart arrhythmia, according to a medical examiner's report, news reports and family members. Echoing the official findings, one family member told The Miami Herald there was no foul play.

But some observers sought to make Klausutis' death a political issue, comparing it to the Chandra Levy intern scandal tied to former California Democratic Rep. Gary Condit.

Scarborough said he was shocked Harris would cite "a bunch of hateful left-wing websites" and that she would repeat "the slanderous attacks of the same people who attacked her for years."

He said he thought of suing, but let it go after "a few heated days, " and reflected on what he told incumbent Sen. Nelson.

Nelson, a Democrat, drew Clinton-attacking Bill McCollum as an opponent amid the Monica Lewinsky fatigue of 2000, and now faces Harris.

"He's the luckiest man in Washington, " Scarborough said.