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    The spotlight is on Bob Graham

    By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 16, 2002

    WASHINGTON -- A reporter sidled up to U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman back in 1998 to get his thoughts on Sen. Graham.

    Lieberman started throwing out bland vagaries befitting a subject he didn't want to touch. So the reporter clarified: No, not Sen. Phil Gramm from Texas; he meant Bob Graham from Florida.

    Lieberman, who quickly turned effusive, made a perfectly understandable assumption at the time. Gramm, the Texas Republican, was a high-profile senator and frequent partisan bomb thrower. Florida's senior senator, while an icon in his own state, inside the beltway often came off more as an amiable technocrat rarely registering on the national radar.

    Now fast forward to last Wednesday. Bob Graham is leaving a committee room that had been packed with journalists listening to him explain the Senate Democrats' Medicare prescription drug bill. Graham crafted the bill, which stands to make him a leading voice on an enormous political issue.

    The senator hustles through the Capitol with a flock of reporters trying to keep up and talk to one of the most sought-after players on the biggest national issue -- homeland security. There was a time when Graham would take the card of most every reporter he met and send him a personal note. These days that's impossible with so many reporters seeking the head of the congressional panel investigating intelligence lapses prior to Sept. 11.

    It took 16 years, but Bob Graham is suddenly front and center on the national stage.

    His round face and Florida ties are on TV constantly. Only Lieberman and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle have hit the Sunday talk shows this year more than Graham, according to a recent tally by Roll Call, the capitol hill newspaper.

    Just a year ago, it looked to many political observers as though Bob Graham's time had passed. Three times he was reported to be a finalist for vice president, but Mike Dukakis, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore left him as a bridesmaid.

    His compulsive journal-writing ("7:15 -- 8:05 -- Kitchen -- brew coffee -- prepare and drink breakfast, chocolate Slim Fast") had been cast among Florida reporters as amusingly eccentric. As the national press weighed in on Gore's potential running mate, those journals came off as downright weird.

    So once Graham shot down talk of a another gubernatorial run, the buzz in Tallahassee was over who would succeed him in the Senate after he retired in 2004. Jeb Bush? Katherine Harris? Jim Davis?

    But the 65-year-old senator these days looks nothing like a man plodding toward retirement. Even as he pushes a Florida ballot initiative to reverse Gov. Jeb Bush's reorganization of the university system, he is in the center of things in Washington.

    Last year Graham reorganized his Senate staff -- not a move of a politician coasting toward the end of his last term. Colleagues say Graham, who had begun expressing frustration with life in the minority party, has shown a new energy since Sen. Jim Jeffords's conversion handed control of the Senate to the Democrats and catapulted Graham's national profile.

    Graham and U.S. Rep. Porter Goss, R-Sanibel, are leading the joint House-Senate committee investigating how the terrorist attacks on America happened, and how they might be prevented in the future. The role makes him a media magnet, but also a ripe target for critics who question whether the famously low-key Graham has the necessary backbone and knowledge to challenge the intelligence agencies.

    "It is clear that (Graham) does not understand the intelligence community," Melvin Goodman of the Intelligence Reform Project at the Center for International Policy told the Chicago Tribune. "He is very tentative when he talks about the CIA."

    Graham shrugged off the criticism about being too close to the intelligence communities or having too superficial an understanding of the issues.

    "I stand accused of both. I will be tried in the trial of public opinion, and I'll check out not guilty," said Graham, who also said he has felt no pressure from his party to go after the Bush White House's counterterrorism record.

    "Our job is not to whitewash nor to scapegoat. Our job is to get all the facts and come to our own conclusions," he said.

    Some Democrats see the investigation as an opportunity to hammer the White House for security and intelligence lapses, but that's not Graham's style. He's never been a particularly partisan senator, let alone someone to make big waves. Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama has been far more vocal about intelligence problems than Graham.

    "He's cautious, but if you listen to what he's been saying, we're not that far off," Shelby said of Graham.

    Graham's profile should rise further when the joint committee starts holding public hearings in a couple of weeks. Plenty of Democrats see his more muted rhetoric as not just typical Graham style, but smart politics.

    "The Democrats, I think, make a huge mistake if they play politics with this," said U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa, who calls Graham "painfully objective."

    Graham is scheduled to leave the Senate chairmanship next year. One Republican pollster in Washington suggested last week that even if he does merely a so-so job leading the committee, his national stature will grow because of his high-profile involvement in foreign affairs and intelligence.

    And that, political speculators, could make him yet again a strong contender for vice presidential nominee in 2004. After all, Florida is the nation's biggest swing state, and no Democrat casts a larger shadow over Florida politics than Graham. Far from fading into retirement, Graham these days looks like a man happy to remain in the spotlight for a while.

    -- Adam C. Smith is political editor of the Times. He can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com.

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