WASHINGTON - She is known in Tallahassee more for her expensive goodwill jaunts abroad than her affinity for election law at home. She was a central figure in a recent campaign finance scandal and only weeks ago was under fire for her taxpayer-funded trips to the Earth's far-flung corners.
And now, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris just might hold the keys to the White House.
The position of the woman at the center of Florida's political maelstrom grew only more momentous yesterday when a Florida circuit judge granted Harris the authority to accept or reject the results of manual ballot recounts that will continue throughout the week.
Not that she has dictatorial powers; she will have to justify to the judge any rulings to disallow those recounts.
Harris emerged briefly from her office last night to announce that her fellow Republican, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, leads Vice President Al Gore by 300 votes in certified results from the state's 67 counties, with overseas absentee ballots still to be tabulated.
She also placed no-nonsense strictures on officials in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, directing them to explain in writing by 2 p.m. today the "facts and circumstances" for the manual recounts they want to complete.
If she determines, "in the exercise of my discretion," that the facts, circumstances and statements are not persuasive, she said, she will certify the results announced last night.
Democrats were still holding out hope that a quick final certification could be headed off. If the counties conducting recounts can produce enough votes for Gore to swing the election his way, Democrats say Harris will simply not be able to give the election to Bush, whose Florida campaign she co-chaired.
"We would all hope that the secretary of state ... would do the right thing," said David Boies, a lawyer representing Gore's interests in Tallahassee. "We would hope that she would."
Even before Harris, 43, has an opportunity to exercise her newly granted authority, she has become a hero to Republicans and Public Enemy No. 1 to Democrats.
"She's going to be considered as somebody who stood up to the most intense adversity imaginable and did her job," marveled Marc Dunbar, a Tallahassee lawyer and former aide to the Republican who preceded Harris as secretary of state. "Whether Republicans love her or Democrats hate her, people will take her as someone who did not bow to the pressure."
Of course, that is not how state Democrats see it.
"Certainly, she is in the eye of the storm, and if she had stood up and done the right thing, people would have seen her as being noble, a great American, a great Floridian," said Buddy Dyer, the departing Democratic leader of the state Senate. "Instead, she has sort of flushed it all away."
Harris, the granddaughter of a Florida cattle and citrus magnate, is no stranger to controversy. Her first foray into electoral politics - a 1994 campaign for the state Senate - was tainted by more than $20,000 in contributions from a Florida-based insurance company that were later determined to be illegal.
Harris, at the time, simply told Florida reporters she wished she "had been more aware of how much money they were giving me."
In 1998, Harris decided to mount a primary challenge to then-Republican Secretary of State Sandra Mortham, who had the backing of George W. Bush's brother Jeb, the Republican gubernatorial candidate.
Harris defeated Mortham, then went on to a general election victory. But that triumph was bittersweet, since Floridians voted in that same election to phase out the office she had won.
With just two years left until the powers of her office are transferred to the governor, Harris has plunged into her preferred role as arts patron and Florida's goodwill ambassador to the world, jobs that are loosely related to her post.
Last month, the Tampa Tribune criticized her for spending more than $100,000 of taxpayer money since January 1999 on trips to Barbados, Rio de Janeiro, New York and Sydney.
During that time, Harris had become a visible political ally of George W. Bush. She traveled to New Hampshire last winter to drum up support for Bush during his primary battle with Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Last month, she drew fire for spending tax money on a get-out-the-vote television commercial featuring Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the Persian Gulf war hero who is closely allied with Bush.
Since Election Day, Harris's role in the Florida imbroglio has grown more controversial by the day. Late last week she released a vote count that appeared to give Bush a sizable lead, even though informal vote counts indicated the governor had a far narrower margin.
Monday, after a federal judge in Miami refused to halt the manual recounting of ballots, Harris issued a statement declaring that all counties must certify their election results by 5 p.m. yesterday. That deadline seemed to render the hand counts irrelevant, because they could not be completed that quickly.