updated 9/21/2006 5:51:52 PM ET 2006-09-21T21:51:52

President Bush came to Florida on Thursday and publicly complimented Rep. Katherine Harris for the first time since she won the GOP Senate nomination over the opposition of her own party.

"I'm proud to be here with Congresswoman Katherine Harris, who is running for Senate," Bush told a crowd of about 400 people at a fundraising event in Tampa.

The brief acknowledgment came after months of unsuccessful efforts by Republican leaders to push Harris out of the race in hopes of finding a candidate they felt had a better chance of winning against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.

Some GOP leaders feared that Harris - who as Florida secretary of state oversaw the 2000 recount that gave Bush the White House - would send Democrats flocking to the polls to vote against her, dragging down the entire Republican ticket.

But now that the party is stuck with her, GOP leaders were welcoming Harris as Bush visited Tampa and Orlando on Thursday to raise money for the party.

Harris campaign difficulties
Bush's remarks came at a fundraising event for Republican congressional hopeful Gus Bilirakis in Tampa. It was the president's first trip to Florida since the Sept. 5 primary. Harris was also expected to join party leaders at the Orlando event. 2006 key races

"The party invited her, and we're glad she's able to attend," said state Republican Party spokesman Jeff Sadosky.

Harris' Senate campaign has gone into a tailspin. She has been tied to a corrupt defense contractor, given embarrassing television interviews, and seen top members of her staff quit in frustration.

A Harris campaign spokeswoman welcomed the opportunity to finally join the GOP elite.

"We look forward to heading into November with unity," said Jennifer Marks.

Harris trails Nelson by more than 30 points in the polls and by millions of dollars in campaign contributions.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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