Graham faults Bush on 'quotas'
By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
ORLANDO -- Sounding more like a definite presidential candidate than a possible one, U.S. Sen. Bob Graham on Monday criticized President Bush for challenging racial preferences in university admissions.
The University of Michigan admissions policy is no quota system as the president described, Graham told reporters after a Martin Luther King Jr. Day prayer breakfast.
"It is one in which race, among many other factors including geography, athletic ability, alumni status of parents is taken into consideration for admission. . . . I think that is perfectly appropriate," Graham said. "It not only is important in terms of assuring that we have an America in which all are represented as college graduates and in the professions, but it also is symbolic of your commitment to an America of equality."
That position won't set Graham apart from other presidential candidates, all of whom have criticized Bush's decision last week to challenge the Michigan policy in the U.S. Supreme Court.
But Graham suggested he should have little problem standing out in the Democratic presidential field that so far includes U.S. Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut; U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri; former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean; and the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York.
Other than Dean, Graham noted, he's the only candidate with executive experience, having served two terms as governor of America's fourth-biggest state, from 1978 to 1986. He has spent 16 years in the U.S. Senate, he added, much of it focused on national security.
Graham expects to announce his presidential plans in two or three weeks. His national profile is low and, unlike other candidates, he has spent little time courting voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, crucial early primary states. But Graham sounds upbeat. He has spent much of the past month meeting and telephoning political activists and operatives across the country, and said the overwhelming majority are enthusiastic about his running. So is his family.
Graham said he wants to be sure he can put together an effective organization, raise the roughly $20-million needed and offer a platform to "catch the imagination of the American people."
"I believe I have a message on the war on terror, on the kind of reforms we need to make on our economy, on education and on our environment that will distinguish me from other candidates," he said.
Among the four Democratic senators, he is the only one to vote against the resolution authorizing force against Iraq. Saddam Hussein eventually may need to be removed from power, he said. But Bush has yet to show the justification for force, and the war on terrorism should be America's first priority.
"The people who have the greatest capacity to kill Americans here in our homeland and abroad are not Saddam Hussein, but rather the shadowy groups of international terrorists, and we have not completed that task," the former Intelligence Committee chairman said. "In fact we have been diverted away from that task by the emphasis on Iraq."
Florida's senior senator maintains Bush should focus on al-Qaida and other "more competent" terrorist groups such as Hezbollah. Syria, for instance, is a sanctuary and training ground for terrorist groups, and America should "demand that they either clean up their act or we're going to do it for them."
Graham addressed a few other hot-button issues:
He disapproved of outgoing Illinois Gov. George Ryan's decision to commute all Illinois death sentences because of his concerns about the system's fairness. Graham supports the death penalty and signed death warrants as governor. Though Florida leads the nation in people released from death row after evidence pointed to wrongful convictions, he said he considered Florida's system fair.
Asked about ex-Gov. Dean's support of a civil union law for gay partners, Graham said he did not know enough about it. "I would not support having the word "marriage' apply to a relationship that was other than between a man and a woman," he said. "I would support the extension of legal rights to people that had a permanent relationship."
He again refused to rule out seeking re-election to the Senate if he failed to win the presidential nomination. Graham's stepping back into the Senate race would be a huge blow to other candidates hoping to run for an open seat.
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