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Graham ponders run for president

Experts say the Florida senator could be a formidable alternative in a crowded race.

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 24, 2002
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WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bob Graham , Florida's most powerful Democrat, is thinking about running for president.

Confirming recent rumors that he was considering a candidacy in 2004, Graham said Monday he could offer an alternative to a Bush administration that in his view is mismanaging the economy and the war against terrorism.

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Graham
In a telephone interview from Miami, Graham said that President Bush has "put the war on terror on the back burner to pursue a war against Saddam Hussein" and is "recycling a trickle-down economic theory" that provides tax breaks for the rich.

Graham, 66, said he will be seeking advice from friends, colleagues and family members about whether to run and expects to make a decision in a few weeks.

Among the assets Graham would bring to a national campaign are his popularity in Florida, a powerful statewide campaign organization and a national network of contributors. As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he has become one of his party's most prominent voices on foreign affairs and domestic security.

Of the six possible Democratic candidates in Congress, Graham is the only one who voted against the resolution authorizing President Bush to use force to disarm Iraq. Graham said the resolution ignored other, more serious threats to the United States.

"We still haven't captured Osama bin Laden. We haven't taken the war against terrorism to the most competent terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, which represent the greatest threat against the United States," he said Monday.

David Epstein, a Columbia University political scientist, said Graham's stance on Iraq and the war on terror could provide "some product differentiation" in a crowded field.

"If the map looks anything like it does now, (the Iraq vote) could help him a lot," Epstein said.

Other possible candidates include Sens. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, John Edwards of North Carolina, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Tom Daschle of South Dakota; Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri; and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

"This is not a terribly impressive Democratic field," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. "So therefore the senior senator from the state that decided the 2000 election has as good a shot as any of the others do."

Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said Graham could be a formidable presidential candidate.

"This is a thoughtful guy with loads of experience, extraordinarily well-positioned, a moderate who doesn't frighten the left or the right, somebody who has got national security credentials, who has been out there arguing for homeland security...that's pretty damn compelling," Ornstein said.

"If I were handicapping the race, he's certainly up there in the top tier," Ornstein said.

On the negative side, Graham would have to overcome criticism that he is dull and has an odd personality.

Two years ago, when he was mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate, Graham gave a speech in Nashville that was seen as an informal try-out for the Democratic ticket, but his jokes fell flat and he never connected with the crowd. A Time magazine story poked fun at his habit of filling little notebooks with tiny details about his life.

Asked Monday about Graham's chances, Sabato replied, "It's funny, my first thought goes back to that report of his incredible diaries. He is really going to have to work hard to overcome that. That is a very strange thing."

Graham, who served as Florida's governor from 1978-1986, noted Monday that most presidents since Jimmy Carter have been governors, a "historical trend" that he said could boost his candidacy. He has been in the Senate since 1986.

Florida has not been considered much of a base for a presidential run, as shown in former Gov. Reubin Askew's failed effort in 1984. But it is now the nation's fourth-largest state, is governed by the president's brother, and it determined the winner of the 2000 campaign.

Three weeks ago, former President Bill Clinton cited Graham as an example of how Democrats could take more forceful positions on national security issues.

"What should our security position be? First of all, we ought to listen to Sen. Graham," Clinton said in a speech to the Democratic Leadership Council. "Al-Qaida should be our top priority."

Prompted by that speech and one Graham gave in October against the Iraq resolution, many friends and supporters have called Graham and urged him to run.

Graham is up for re-election to the Senate in 2004 and does not need to file re-election papers until May of that year. Florida law prohibits candidates from qualifying for more than one public office simultaneously. It appears possible that Graham could seek the presidency and then, if he doesn't get the nomination, seek re-election. But it's unlikely that Graham would attempt to do both.

"If I decided to run (for president), that would be a commitment to pursue it to the end," Graham said.

His other options: He could run for a fourth Senate term or retire from politics.

Graham is the most influential Democrat in Florida. Last fall, he used his clout to pass a ballot initiative that revived the state Board of Regents.

"He has shown that he's a great campaigner and an institution in Florida politics and he should certainly be taken very seriously," said Miami lawyer Chris Korge, a top Democratic fundraiser.

Graham is regarded as an effective fundraiser. He raised $5.4-million for his 1998 campaign and has a national network of contributors dating to 1994, when he ran the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Graham would have to catch up with early candidates such as Edwards, who has raised about $7-million. Vice President Al Gore raised about $50-million to win the nomination in 2000, which included about $13-million in federal matching funds.

But Ornstein said Graham's strong base in Florida -- a key state for raising money -- and his network of national supporters should give him the money he needs.

Graham's emphasis on state issues during his first two Senate terms gave him a relatively low national profile. But he has been more prominent in the past two years as co-chairman of the joint congressional inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks. Graham has appeared on Sunday news shows more than anyone else this year, according to a tally by the newspaper Roll Call.

Graham hasn't been visiting key primary states like many other candidates -- Lieberman, for example, has made six visits to New Hampshire in the past two years -- but Ornstein and Sabato said Graham still has plenty of time to get into the campaign.

Sabato said, "This race is just starting to form."

-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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