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New Graham audiences search in vain for fire

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2003


MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Mike Lopez came to the "Down and Dirty" barbecue to see whether Sen. Bob Graham had the right stuff to be president. He left disappointed.

The Manchester alderman is an influential leader in New Hampshire, the kind of person Graham needs for his budding campaign.

But as the senator finished his speech and walked off stage to the sounds of Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, Lopez was frowning. He said Graham was uninspiring.

"I expected him to excite the crowd more than he did," he said. Graham was "just saying the words and not coming from the heart," Lopez said.

His criticism, echoed by several voters who heard Graham during his first campaign trip, highlights the challenge facing the Florida Democrat. The voters liked his resume and moderate views, but they said he lacked pizazz.

Bob Patterson, a Palo Alto, Calif. lawyer who heard him in San Francisco, said Graham "is not charismatic enough" and did not energize his audience.

"You need to fire them up a bit, especially if you want them to write a check," said Patterson. "He needs to come in with a little bit more fire and brimstone."

Yet some liked Graham's low-key style.

Kevin Fleming, a high school history teacher in Hampton, N.H., said Graham came across like "Dad," as a seasoned and confident leader.

Said Fleming, "Maybe a little elder statesman is what we need."

Testing his applause lines

The weeklong trip was political spring training.

It allowed Graham to take a few rhetorical swings at the Bush administration and build his fan base in two important states.

In California, he had private meetings with movie producer Steve Bing and Disney chief Michael Eisner. He courted wealthy contributors at a Beverly Hills brunch, chatted with lawyers at a Palo Alto law firm and spoke to an eclectic group of party activists at a picturesque home in San Francisco.

In New Hampshire, he walked the streets of Manchester and told everyone he met, "I'm Bob Graham, and I'm running for president. I'd appreciate your consideration." He spoke to teachers at a union office and went table-to-table during lunch at the Merrimack restaurant.

Graham is so new to the race that he barely registers in the polls. He has no campaign brochures to hand out. He won't formally announce his candidacy for about two weeks and doesn't have a polished stump speech like the other candidates. So on this trip, he spoke off-the-cuff and used the appearances to test sound bites and applause lines.

He usually got a laugh when he said he could win Florida without the help of the U.S. Supreme Court. He seemed to connect to older voters when he showed a photo of his grandchildren. And he got nods and occasional applause when he criticized the Bush administration for its 'fumbling diplomacy" and its failure to find "Osama Been Forgotten."

But several speeches seemed too long and had listeners fidgeting. He often gave lengthy policy recitals when the crowd would have preferred punchy attack lines.

When he summed up his qualifications -- an opportunity for a snappy quote -- he lapsed into uninspiring language. He told the Palo Alto lawyers that he is running for president "because I feel I have the combination of resume and personal demeanor" to do the job.

He appeared healthy and showed no aftereffects of his recent heart surgery, but he looked formal. He wore a blue pinstripe suit and a patriotic tie to most events, even when the crowd came in jeans and work shirts.

Graham seemed to connect best with individuals and small crowds.

Jim Barry, a salesman who met him on a Manchester street, liked his direct answers about health insurance and welfare. "Seems like a nice guy," Barry said. "Seems like he had the answers right there, nothing pre-canned -- right from his heart, right from his gut."

Graham got a good response from a dozen teachers at a New Hampshire union office when he described his first "work day" as a teacher during his 1978 campaign for governor. He said teaching was "a transforming experience" that made him passionate about education and helped him get over his shyness.

"I was very impressed with his knowledge," said Jane Howard, a special education teacher from Merrimack, N.H. "He spoke in a very direct but meaningful way."

A flat performance

The San Francisco reception was held at "Pelican's Nest," a stylish home on Ashbury Street owned by Dr. Laura Esserman and Michael Endicott. The event was testament to the broad reach of Graham's political and social network. Esserman's father is a longtime friend of Graham's from Miami.

The other events also relied on Graham's sprawling network. Many people at the Beverly Hills brunch work with Charlie Reed, the chancellor of the California state university system who was an aide to Graham when he was Florida's governor. The brunch was at the home of Sim Farar, a prominent fundraiser Graham met when he headed his party's Senate campaign committee.

In preparing for his presidential campaign, Graham says he has tried to remember everyone he has known since childhood. He is even trying to identify Iowa farmers who have purchased cattle from the Graham family's Angus ranch. He hopes those bull buyers will vote for him at the state's presidential caucus.

At Pelican's Nest, about 50 people crowded into the sunlit living room and spilled into the hallway to hear him. The group included teachers, social workers and doctors, most in casual clothes. Graham stood on an Oriental rug in his pinstriped suit.

Realizing that he had a liberal California audience, he played up his environmental credentials. He said the Bush administration approach was "Can I drill it? Can I drain it? Can I dig it up?"

At first, he seemed to connect with the crowd. But he kept talking. The room grew darker as the sun went down. The crowd grew restless, but Graham seemed unaware. He ended up talking and answering questions for more than an hour.

Patterson, the San Francisco lawyer, said Graham performed well when he described his work days, which showed he wanted to understand people's lives. But Patterson said Graham seemed to lack "command presence."

Graham drew similar reactions in New Hampshire at the "Down and Dirty Barbecue," which was named after the restaurant that catered the event with baked beans, cole slaw and barbecued pork. Beth Campbell, a vice president of the Service Employees International Union, found his performance flat.

She said, "I'd tell you what I thought of him -- if I could remember what he said. He didn't seem to be coming from a place of passion."

Media training

Others who have seen Graham in the past few weeks give better reviews.

"The style impressed me," Manchester electrician Bob Duval said between bites of barbecue. "We need somebody who doesn't want to be a world conqueror -- which is what we've got now."

Mike Barnes, a former congressman from Maryland who heard him speak to a dinner of key Democrats in Washington a few weeks ago, said Graham "is not a guy who is going to have people on their feet stomping and shouting. But the group was impressed with his performance and the substance of what he had to say."

Barnes said the group has been searching for the right candidate and that "I think a lot of people left there that evening thinking this might be the guy."

Graham has always been considered a low-key speaker, but Floridians didn't mind. He is one of the most popular elected officials in the state's history.

Now he faces his greatest political challenge, trying to win voters who have never seen him before and may not be as tolerant of his quirks as Floridians have been.

Graham aides acknowledge that the senator needs to improve, but they say his weak reviews are a minor -- and curable -- problem.

"He needs to answer the question and move on," said Steve Jarding, the campaign's communications director. "But all in all, I'm very pleased. This is a guy who is very comfortable with himself."

Asked about the mixed reviews, Graham said he felt "a little rusty" at the Beverly Hills event but believes he is improving.

He is getting lots of advice. His wife, Adele, has urged him to say more about his record as governor. He will be coached how to give speeches and interviews in the next few weeks and says he is already trying to speak more concisely.

But Graham said the most important thing is whether he can lead the country. "I've never said I was going to be elected because I had the most star quality."

-- To read Bill Adair's online reports from the campaign trail, go to www.sptimes.com/adairjournal. He can be reached at adair@sptimes.com.

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