Florida Trend | Florida's Business Authority


From an image standpoint, "I'm not a very good candidate," jokes Jan Schneider shortly before she won the Democratic primary and the chance to again run against Republican Rep. Katherine Harris to represent District 13 in Congress. She criticizes herself as being too short and lacking a powerful voice.

Schneider, a Sarasota attorney, lost to Harris in 2002. But she came close, winning 45% of the vote with just $150,000 and nothing like Harris' name recognition.

And Schneider says she learned some valuable lessons from her previous run. She changed her hairstyle, carefully selects her campaign attire and took up shooting at a local gun range to "connect with people from the inland counties," she says.

But she also changed her strategy. She chooses not to attack Harris directly, preferring to go after President George W. Bush's policies. She nips at Harris' voting record, however, saying she blindly votes with the Republican majority at the expense of her constituents.

While Harris voted to go to war in Iraq, Schneider says she would not have. Harris supports Bush's No Child Left Behind Act; Schneider doesn't. Harris helped pass the Medicare prescription drug benefit plan; Schneider says it's misleading to seniors, whom she is heavily courting. Voters age 55 and up comprise 41% of the district. "I am going to look at every bill from a senior perspective," she says.

District 13, which encompasses Manatee, De Soto, Hardee, Sarasota and parts of Charlotte counties, has been a Republican stronghold for decades. In Sarasota, more than 48% of voters are Republican while 31% are Democrat.

In addition, Schneider faces a well-organized Republican camp, a well-known name and a $2-million war chest that dwarfs her own $200,000.

Nevertheless, analysts predict a tight race. Over the last year, the number of registered Republicans in Sarasota has dropped by 1.5%, while the number of Democrats has grown by 4.3%. The number of voters registered as independents, no party affiliation and others has grown by 5.8%.

"Democrats are more organized and active this year," says Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

There's also a strong sense among Democrats that Harris is vulnerable. She has made gaffes, including a recent reference to a thwarted terrorist plot in Indiana that officials there hadn't heard of. Critics say Harris either breached national security or made up the story. Harris would not comment for this report.

MacManus, for one, thinks Schneider, who earned a law degree and a doctorate from Yale, can capitalize on running in one of the state's most politically savvy districts. She has "the kind of credentials that people will notice," says MacManus.