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Florida's favorite son hits the campaign trail

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2003

Bob Graham for president?

Why not? Consider the eight other Democrats already in the race. None stands out as an obvious choice. Some are a joke.

Bob Graham as president?

That's a tougher question for some. But it's not that hard to imagine Graham, a four-term senator, in the Oval Office. He's as qualified -- maybe even more so -- as any of the leading candidates, including fellow Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina. Or as U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri and former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont. We don't have to even get to the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois.

Last week Graham took the first step toward becoming a 2004 presidential candidate. He filed papers to begin raising money and will announce in early April whether he will seek the Democratic presidential nomination. His decision, aides say, will depend on his health (he is recuperating from heart surgery). Graham says his recovery is going well and he expects to be fit to sprint. He also is confident that he can raise the $20-million he will need to mount a national campaign.

"A healthy Graham could complicate life for several Democrats already in the race," Washington Post reporter David Von Drehle wrote last week. "His strength in Florida undercuts the popularity of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) in the Sunshine State, where Lieberman campaigned heavily as the party's 2000 vice presidential nominee. Graham's roots on a dairy farm in the Old Confederacy erase the claim of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards to be the Southern candidate. His years as governor, and his vote against the Senate resolution authorizing war in Iraq, erode former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's claim to be the one candidate with executive experience and a clear antiwar position."

I had been hoping Graham would take a pass. With Graham in the race, Florida would lose its status as a battleground state in the primary campaign. He would be Florida's favorite son, and that means most of the other candidates would all but concede the state to Graham. Now that Graham appears ready to go for it, I'm eager to see him show his stuff on the presidential campaign trail. He can expect to spend the first days of his campaign answering questions about his health. After that will come questions about this thing he has about recording the most mundane details of his daily routine in journals (he has filled 4,000 notebooks so far). But once the debate focuses on issues, Graham will be put to the test.

Graham is not much of a orator, and no one will ever describe him as charismatic. However, he has some obvious advantages. No Democrat north of the Mason-Dixon line has won the White House since 1960 (that's also the last time a sitting senator was elected president). John Kerry is no John Kennedy. And John Edwards is no Bob Graham. Edwards is a freshman senator and former trial lawyer who reportedly can't remember whether he first registered as a Democrat or a Republican. Graham is a political icon in a key battleground state, and if he became his party's nominee, he could expect to start the general-election campaign with the political advantage in California, New York and Florida, three of the nation's four largest states. That's a hefty basket of electoral votes. George W. Bush could count on Texas.

Before taking on Bush, of course, Graham has to nail down his party's nomination. So how would this centrist politician fare in some of the early primary contests where liberal interest groups subject candidates to issue litmus tests? He'd probably get a passing grade on most hot-button issues. As a senator, he has been a strong supporter of environmental safeguards and health care programs, including prescription drugs, for the elderly. He supports abortion rights and opposes a ban on "partial-birth" abortions. He has voted to ban discrimination against homosexuals. He supports the death penalty and is the only Democrat in the race who has signed death warrants.

More recently, Graham has emerged as one of the most effective and forceful critics of the Bush administration on national security issues, including its war on terrorism. Unlike his three Senate colleagues and Gephardt, Florida's senior senator voted against the resolution last fall giving President Bush a virtual blank check to wage war on Iraq.

Graham shouldn't expect his vote to make him the favorite of antiwar Democrats, who are swooning over Howard Dean and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. At least he won't have to be on the defensive on the Iraq issue. He can sit back and watch Kerry, Lieberman, Edwards and Gephardt squirm as they try to explain their votes to antiwar activists in Iowa.

The challenge for Graham is not to allow himself to be defined as just another antiwar candidate. He needs to put forward a broader agenda that speaks to people's concerns about the economy and health care. If the Bush war against Iraq goes badly, and terrorists strike America again, Graham could emerge as the candidate voters trust most with national security. However, if the war is over quickly and the worst-case scenarios don't come to pass, Graham might want to change the subject and dust off Bill Clinton's old mantra -- "It's the economy, stupid."

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