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The Woman In Charge

The woman in charge of enforcing Florida's election laws is a prominent Republican with close ties to Gov. Jeb Bush and his brother, GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush.

Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, 43, served as a co-chairperson of the Bush presidential campaign in the Sunshine State, was a delegate to the Republican National Convention, and has reportedly expressed interest in a position in a Bush administration.

Harris has been at the eye of the Florida ballot storm since she refused to accept the results of any hand recounts submitted after Nov. 14, which she said was the legal deadline for certifying the results of the state's presidential balloting. The final totals in Florida will ultimately determine who wins the presidential race.

The Florida Supreme Court subsequently ordered her to accept such recounts, and set a Sunday deadline for their submission. Harris was back in action in Sunday, rejecting a request from Palm Beach County to extend the deadline until Monday. She then stepped back into the spotlight by certifying Bush to be the winner of the Florida presidential election by 537 votes.

Democrats have charged Harris with injecting partisan politics into the dispute, and she has been under constant attack, including attacks on her looks as well as her politics.

"It's so cold in Florida," late-night comedidan Jay Leno said, that Harris "wore a third layer of makeup today!"

Vice President Al Gore's running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, has accused her of wanting to "decide the election herself."

Bob Poe, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party used even stronger language. "It becomes clearer and clearer by every action she takes, every statement she makes, that she is still the co-chairman of the Bush campaign of Florida and not our secretary of statement," he told The Washington Post. "It's my guess that she gets a substantial portion of her marching orders right out of Austin."

Suggesting that she has a conflict of interest, Democrats have passed out copies of articles reporting that Harris traveled to New Hampshire last winter on behalf of the Bush campaign and saying that she would be "passionately interested" in a post in foreign affairs or the arts if Bush captures the White House.

But a spokesman for Harris defended her motives. Attorney Joseph Klock claimed more than half of the lawyers who work for Harris are Democrats.

"I bet probably half of them voted for Gore," said Klock.

And a former colleague said she would never let political concerns influence her public duties.

"This is of such magnitude and importance," said Toni Jennings, an Orlando Republican who next week concludes four years as president of the state Senate. "While she and I would both like George Bush to be the president of the United States, it is just too important to let our wishes get in the way of how this issue hould properly be handled."

Harris is a member of one of Florida's wealthiest and most influential families. Her late grandfather, Ben Hill Griffin, was a citrus baron and state legislator, and one of the state's largest landowners. A graduate of Agnes Scott College, she attended graduate school at Harvard University and studied art at the University of Madrid. She's married to businessman Anders Ebbeson and has a teen-age daughter.

The position Harris now holds, which Florida voters decided to eliminate starting in 2002, gives her oversight of the state's arts programs, libraries and trade issues, as well as elections. She was first elected to the office two years ago, following a bruising Republican primary fight, in which Gov. Bush endorsed her opponent. But she and the governor have been strong political allies ever since. She previously served four years as a state senator.

Last year, Harris mulled a run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Connie Mack, saying she was willing to spend "whatever it would take" to win. But she abandoned the idea, and Rep. Bill McCollum eventually won the GOP nomination, before losing the Nov. 7 election to Democratic state Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson.

Harris' political career has not been without controversy. She has been investigated for campaign finance violations and criticized for spending state money for international travel.

During her first two years as Secretary of State, Harris spent $100,000 in taxpayer money on foreign trade trips to places like Barbados and Brazil as well as the Sydney Olympics. Her travel costs were much higher than the other five members of the state Cabinet and three times more than Gov. Bush.

Harris defended her travel expenses, saying she has brought millions of dollars in foreign trade to the state.

In 1994, during her first run for public office, federal officials disclosed that Harris had accepted $20,000 in illegal campaign contributions. Harris was forced to return the funds after investigators found that employees of a Sarasota insurance company were improperly reimbursed for their contributions to her state Senate campaign.

She denied knowledge that anything was improper about the contributions and was not charged with a crime. But officials said her campaign director was named an unindicted co-conspirator, and the insurance company's founder pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and was sentenced to five months in prison.

This year, Harris was criticized for spending $30,000 in public finds on a public service announcement featuring retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, a Bush ally, urging Floridians to vote. The ads aired in the final month of the presidential campaign.