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Daunting primaries loom for Graham

The compressed schedule for the earliest presidential primaries offers no easy wins for the senator.

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 6, 2003

MIAMI LAKES - Bob Graham says a lot about how he can beat President Bush. But he has said little about how he will defeat his fellow Democrats to get the chance.

As Florida's most popular Democrat formally launches his presidential campaign today, the three-term senator faces a huge challenge and a largely uncertain path to winning the Democratic nomination. He is a late entrant in a crowded primary field, with a political map that doesn't offer much help.

The compressed primary schedule leaves little room for error, and there is no early state for Graham to easily win credibility and momentum. Florida comes too late, March 9. By then the race may be over.

"I would say he's a longshot," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of a political newsletter. "Bob Graham has a problem. He has no geographic niche in the first few contests."

Democratic pollster David Beattie said, "Stamina and staying power is about his only chance for winning."

The first milestone is the Jan. 19 Iowa caucus, where U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri is heavily favored because of his strong union support. New Hampshire follows on Jan. 27, where the favorites are two New Englanders, U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont.

Some political analysts say Graham must be second or third in each state to stay alive.

A week later comes an eclectic group of states: South Carolina, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Delaware and Missouri. National media are paying particular attention to South Carolina, because it is the first southern primary. It will be crucial for Graham.

"He's got to perform in South Carolina," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Cook Political Report. "He's got to come out of there with a lot of momentum."

As one of two Southerners in the race, Graham should be strong in South Carolina. But U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina is a native South Carolinian, and Kerry and Gephardt have built formidable organizations there.

Graham faces a formidable task to break out of the pack. At a debate in South Carolina on Saturday, he was overshadowed by his chief rival for moderate voters, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.

"Not only is he fighting Lieberman for the center, he's fighting Edwards for the South," said Rothenberg.

Graham and his advisers have said little about which states they intend to target, and they note that many states still have not finalized their primary dates.

"We haven't locked in on a certain road path to victory," Graham's campaign manger, Paul Johnson, said Monday. "I don't think we have to for a while."

With the prospect of 27 primaries and caucuses by March 3, no candidate can afford to compete aggressively in every state, which creates myriad scenarios for winning.

"We're all going to, to some degree, pick and choose" which states to emphasize, Johnson said.

But Graham said they will mount a full-fledged effort in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"We are planning on being very competitive in the early states," said Graham, who will emphasize his family's farming background to appeal to rural voters. "We have an organization up and running both in Iowa and New Hampshire. I am going to be spending a lot of time there, as well as the next round, which includes South Carolina and Arizona."

In the frenzied early primaries, winning sometimes is not as important as exceeding expectations.

"If you do well enough to beat expectations, you get a pass to move forward," said Steve Jarding, Graham's communications director. "If you don't, you're voted off the island."

So Graham will try to beat expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire by finishing close behind the winner. If he finishes toward the bottom of the pack in both states, he's probably finished. If he stays alive, Graham is likely to focus on Arizona, as is Lieberman, because of its moderate Democratic voters. Arizona "has a great deal of similarity to Florida - a large retirement population, a large Hispanic population," Graham said.

He also could be a contender in Virginia, another southern state, which holds its primary Feb. 10. Two of his top campaign aides managed the campaign of Democratic Gov. Mark Warner.

By March, a few candidates could still be in the race if the primary victories are fairly evenly divided. In that case, Florida could still play a role.

"Florida is placed as both his best friend and his worst enemy," said pollster Rob Schroth. "It is too far along if he has a bad early showing, and it is exquisitely placed if he has a strong early showing."

How Graham fares could depend as much on the other campaigns as his own.

"There are so many variables you can't control," Jarding said. The winner "is not who runs the perfect campaign, because there's no such thing. It's who screws up the least."

In his speeches, Graham says he is the best Democrat to challenge President Bush because he is a former governor and is from the South. He says Florida will once again be a key state and that he can win it "without the help of the U.S. Supreme Court."

But Gov. Jeb Bush said Monday that Graham shouldn't be too confident.

"I think my brother can beat Bob Graham in Florida," Bush said. Graham "would be formidable in this state, but I believe my brother can beat him - whip them all."

-Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.
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