The political pros are pooh-poohing Bob Graham 's presidential prospects for all the wrong reasons. They say the other potential candidates for the 2004 Democratic nomination already have a big head start on Graham in the all-important process of begging for money from special interests. They say Graham tends to speak in complex paragraphs instead of the catchy sound bites that grab voters' attention. They say Graham isn't well-known in the tiny but supposedly crucial states of New Hampshire and Iowa. And they say he has some personality quirks that might be considered charming in a non-presidential candidate but open him to ridicule from political opponents and the national media.
All of that may be true. But if so, it says more about the flaws in our system of choosing presidential candidates than it does about Graham's valid qualifications.
While Graham is still deciding whether to enter the presidential race, other Democrats have been running hard for months. There are plenty of reasons, personal as well as pragmatic, that Graham might decide not to run. But by all rational criteria, Florida's senior U.S. senator would deserve to be taken as seriously as any of the other potential Democratic candidates -- and more seriously than some of the contenders who already are considered front-runners.
A three-term senator and two-term governor from the fourth-largest state in the nation, Graham has a breadth of experience that even the most substantial of the other presumptive candidates, such as U.S. Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, can't match. Graham has won broad respect from his colleagues as an expert on crucial issues such as national security and education. For example, as co-chairman of the congressional panel that recently completed its investigation of the performance of the U.S. intelligence community prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, Graham won bipartisan praise for his thoroughness and objectivity. Meanwhile, upstarts such as freshman U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina are considered presidential contenders on the basis of little more than raw ambition, a nice smile and a personal fortune.
Graham has one other attribute that ought to matter to those Democrats who actually care about winning elections: He is a thoughtful moderate who can appeal to many independent and Republican voters.
Graham is the only potential Democratic presidential candidate in Congress who voted against the resolution authorizing President Bush to use force to disarm Saddam Hussein. But he did so based on a rationale that should appeal to many voters across the political spectrum: Graham makes a persuasive case that attacking Iraq should be a lower priority than taking all necessary steps to neutralize al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah, that pose a more immediate threat to U.S. citizens.
Graham could find many reasons to stay out of the 2004 race. It's still not clear that he wants to run for president as much as he wants to find something, anything, to get him out of the Senate, where he already has spent 16 years and now finds himself back in the minority. He may decide that other candidates have too big a head start in fundraising and name recognition. Or he may just decide that he's 66 years old and doesn't need the grief.
But if Graham does decide to run, he deserves to be taken seriously, in large part because Florida deserves to be taken more seriously. Our populous, politically competitive state has shown it can be crucial to the outcome of a presidential election, yet Florida candidates have not yet gotten their due on the national stage. Graham probably thinks it's time for that to change. By the time the 2008 presidential campaign rolls around, Gov. Jeb Bush probably will, too.
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