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Graham begins run for presidency in '04

The Florida Democrat stresses prosperity and security as he savages the Bush administration over the economy and terrorism.

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 7, 2003

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MIAMI LAKES - Saying the Bush administration has squandered the budget surplus and fattened the wallets of the wealthy, Sen. Bob Graham on Tuesday formally launched his campaign for president.

Graham vowed to focus on working men and women and reinvigorate the economy. He said Bush "shows no sign of knowing how to lead us back to economic prosperity."

He told the crowd of about 1,000 supporters that the administration had neglected homeland defense and focused too much on the war against Iraq.

"Instead of pursuing the most imminent and real threats - international terrorists - this Bush administration has chosen to settle old scores," Graham said.

He derided the Bush administration for advising people to buy plastic sheeting to protect against terrorist attacks and said that if elected, "I will make sure that homeland defense consists of more than just plastic wrap."

The two-term Florida governor made his announcement in a picturesque setting: in front of a hamburger restaurant on Main Street in a town his family built. The street was decorated with American flags and a big sign that said, "Proven Leadership Working for America."

The only thing that didn't fit the Norman Rockwell imagery was the lingerie shop next door, but an enterprising Graham supporter had used a cardboard poster to add a few words to the store's sign, so it read, "Victoria's Secret . . . Bob's Gonna Win."

Graham was joined on stage by dozens of people in blue campaign shirts who served with him on his workdays: a teacher, a Santa Claus, a bagelmaker and a Publix truck driver.

Earl Lightner, the truck driver, described himself as a Republican and Rush Limbaugh listener who still likes his home-state Democrat. He said he was impressed by Graham's fondness for truck stop food and his interest in people's lives.

"He's not afraid to get his hands dirty and get in the trenches," said Lightner, a Jacksonville resident who delivered a load of groceries to Tallahassee with Graham.

Graham's 25-minute speech offered few specifics, but he gave a broad outline of the issues he plans to emphasize.

He said that on the basic values of protecting the environment and safeguarding Social Security and Medicare, the Bush administration "has reneged on our promise and jeopardized our future."

He said the administration had shown "damning indifference" while "their friends at corporations like Enron pillaged the economy and the retirement hopes of millions of Americans."

He did not mention President Bill Clinton, but Graham offered indirect praise, saying: "The last Democratic administration not only put us on the path to fiscal solvency, it produced the biggest budget surpluses in the history of our nation. The Bush administration has squandered all of that."

After the speech, Graham told reporters that the administration should focus more on Hezbollah and other terrorist groups that he said want to attack the United States.

"These people tend to do to people what they say they're going to do," Graham said. He quoted the leader of Hezbollah as saying, "Death to Americans today and in the future."

Graham continued to sidestep questions of whether he would run for re-election to the Senate if he does not become the Democratic presidential nominee. He has left himself wiggle room to seek re-election, although he has said he has urged other Florida Democrats to gear up for a Senate race because he expects to become president.

The line for Graham's Senate seat already is forming.

Republicans include Rep. Mark Foley of West Palm Beach and former Rep. Bill McCollum, who lost a 2000 Senate race to Democrat Bill Nelson.

Democrats looking at the Graham seat include Reps. Allen Boyd of Monticello, Peter Deutsch of Fort Lauderdale and Alcee Hastings of Miramar. Other potential Democratic candidates include Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, retired banking executive Alex Sink of Thonotosassa and former University of South Florida president Betty Castor, who said Tuesday she is considering a run.

Asked if he is interested in being a vice presidential candidate if he fails to win the top spot, Graham also evaded the question. He plans to become president, he said, so talking about the No. 2 spot is unnecessary.

The campaign kickoff was filmed by Graham's media consultants for future TV ads. Loud music was used to motivate the crowd: Alabama's 40-Hour Week as the workday participants filed on stage ("There are people in this country who work hard every day/Not for fame or fortune do they strive"), and the cascading guitar riff of U2's Where the Streets Have No Name when Graham and his wife, Adele, were introduced. They were joined on stage by their four daughters and 10 grandchildren.

But despite the picturesque setting and careful scripting, there were a few missteps.

Graham stumbled slightly as he stepped on stage. The noon sun was so bright that he was unable to read the speech on the TelePrompTer, which would have allowed him to give a more seamless presentation. Instead, he kept looking down at the printed text and spoke haltingly.

Buddy Shorstein, one of his closest friends, acknowledged Graham could have been better but said the senator is steadily improving as a speaker.

"He's not a stemwinder yet," said Shorstein, his former chief of staff. "But he's headed in the right direction."

Craig Crawford, a political analyst for Congressional Quarterly and MSNBC who has covered Graham for many years, described the speech this way: "It's like a thousand other Graham speeches. He has something to say, but he's no showman."

The senator's supporters said he is the best candidate because of his moderate views, his clout in Florida and his experience as governor.

"The most important thing for Democrats is electing the next president," said Pinellas County Democratic activist Gene Smith. "Bob Graham is the guy who can get elected."

Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne, an avid supporter of Sen. John Edwards until Graham entered the race, said the Florida senator's big challenge is to break out of the Democratic pack.

"He's got a great message and he's got the credentials. The question is, can the campaign put it together for him?"

- Times political editor Adam C. Smith and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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