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FLORIDA KEY TO NEXT PRESIDENT -- AGAIN

You can hardly pick up a paper these days without stumbling across yet another story on who likely will be elected president more than three years from now.

It's hard to care this far out, but those so attuned would do well to skip the speculation and watch Florida in 2006. The nation's fourth-largest and perhaps most politically diverse state, Florida has replaced California as the new Petri dish. What happens there in 2006 may be the best indicator for what will happen in the rest of the country in 2008.

And 2006 is an especially significant year for Democrats, who this time have a fair shot at Florida's governorship. As the unofficial roster goes, three Democrats and three Republicans likely will run. The key to that race, however -- and therefore to the 2008 presidential race -- may lie with the woman who is second only to Hillary Clinton as a political lightning rod.

Think Election 2000, Palm Beach County, hanging chads, the Supreme Court -- and the mind finds Katherine Harris, then Florida's secretary of state. She's now a U.S. congresswoman who reportedly is interested in trying to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.

If you're a Republican, Harris is the attractive granddaughter of a Florida citrus pioneer who held fast against hurricane-strength political winds to keep order during a virulent presidential race. If you're a Democrat, Harris is Cruella De Vil and the Spawn of Satan who helped steal the 2000 election from Al Gore and handed the presidency to George W. Bush.

If you're a Democrat, you get down on your knees three times a day and pray that Harris will run for the U.S. Senate in 2006, because nothing could energize Democrats the way a Harris candidacy would. If you're a Republican, you pray equally fervently that Harris will discover a deep and abiding passion for Tibetan architecture and Himalayan backpacking.

Republicans are in a jam with Harris because, though she poses a clear risk, they can't really get rid of her. No one will run against her in the primary because she's an icon, certain to win the nomination. Moreover, she's hugely important as a party fund raiser and is blessed by birth and marriage with a small treasury of her own.

Best bets are that she'll win the nomination and she'll run, which means the Democratic machinery will kick in to advance a Democrat for governor. Among those who have declared their candidacy are Rod Smith, who was a state prosecutor in Gainesville and then became a state senator, and Jim Davis, a congressman from Tampa who is well regarded, though considered only slightly more exciting than paint.

A third likely candidate who has not declared officially is Scott Maddox, a former Tallahassee mayor who three years ago ran for attorney general unsuccessfully but well -- within 30,000 votes in the primary.

Among Republicans, the favored candidate seems to be Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist. Also running, as usual, is Florida Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, who has run in every statewide election since 1988, including twice for governor. And, finally, Florida Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings from Orlando, who served as president of the state senate from 1996 to 2000.

Who will win is anyone's guess, but some of the best guessers in the trenches are betting the governor's race will come down to Crist and Maddox. But Harris' name on the same ballot cannot be excluded as a major factor whatever the outcome. And that's where 2008 comes in.

If Harris wins the Senate seat, speculation is that Republicans will make a clean sweep and keep the White House come 2008. If she loses, Floridians probably will be saying Gov. Maddox and the rest of us will be saying President Clinton again. Madam president, that is.