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    President's appeal to fade, Kerry says

    The Massachusetts presidential hopeful makes his second fundraising trip in a month to Florida.

    By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 18, 2003

    TAMPA -- The president's postwar popularity may be sky high, but Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry urged Democrats here Thursday to remain steadfast as they look to the next election.

    "Whatever you see today in terms of the president's popularity is not going to be what you see next year," the four-term Massachusetts senator said during a fundraiser at the Marriott Waterside Hotel.

    "It is not a reflection of the real choices we face in America," he said of President Bush's recent approval ratings, which top 70 percent. "I believe that when we begin to articulate those choices to our fellow Americans -- as a matter of common sense, main street American values -- there is not one single area where we cannot do better than what this administration is asking us to do."

    Undaunted by the Florida popularity of fellow U.S. senator and presidential candidate Bob Graham, Kerry visited Tampa and Jacksonville on Thursday for his second fundraising trip in Graham's home state in a month. The $250-a-plate Tampa luncheon organized by lawyer Barry Cohen attracted more than 150 people, though many in the crowd said Graham remained their top choice.

    "I'm supporting Graham, but I'm looking for a second choice too," said retired banking executive Alex Sink, the wife of former Democratic gubernatorial nominee Bill McBride, who also backs Graham but attended the Kerry luncheon. Sink is considering running for Graham's Senate seat if he stays in the presidential race.

    Her sentiment was echoed throughout the hotel ballroom by other Democrats doubtful of Graham's prospects. Cohen said "nobody" he talks to believes Graham has a shot.

    "Bob Graham is a wonderful man, but he doesn't have recognition across the country, and I don't think he's going to get it," said former state Sen. Helen Gordon Davis. "He doesn't express himself as well as Kerry does."

    Kerry, 59, is the only candidate with combat war experience. In Vietnam, he earned a Bronze Star, Silver Star and three Purple Heart awards, then became a high-profile critic of the war.

    He voted to authorize Bush to use force in Iraq, but strongly criticized the president's diplomatic efforts before the war.

    "Even the United States has got to have some friends on the planet," he said Thursday, arguing that Bush now has "an enormous repair job on a global basis . . . to do the things that make us stronger and safer."

    He hammered the administration for driving up the deficit, hurting the environment and inadequately funding education. He called the administration's tax-cutting plan "bass-ackwards." Rather than pushing tax cuts that largely help the wealthiest Americans, Kerry supports a much less costly "payroll tax holiday" that he said would give every worker a tax cut up to $765.

    Kerry has emerged as the early front-runner in the crowded Democratic field, but skeptics question the national appeal of the senator from Massachusetts. Kerry dismissed that concern, suggesting that the last Democratic nominee from Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, made "terrible mistakes. He didn't fight back. I'm a fighter."

    Part of Graham's appeal is his Florida base and potential strength in the South. Kerry brought up Graham without prompting, calling him a respected friend and a "terrific governor."

    "I'm not running against anybody else," he said later to reporters. "I'm running for my vision for the country, and (Graham) has much to add to that dialogue. If he decides to get in full hog, I'll respect that, and I'll look forward to a good discussion."

    -- Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or .

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