MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa - If you're Bob Graham, the presidential candidate from Florida with a popular Democratic message and powerhouse resume, how could you not feel a bit wistful about your timing?
Graham, a two-term governor, three-term U.S. senator and national security authority who vocally opposed the war in Iraq, is lagging behind in polling in the race for the Democratic nomination, money, name recognition and buzz.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean led a state nearly 30 times smaller than Florida and has none of Graham's foreign policy qualifications. But Dean, who started campaigning a year before Graham, denounced the war from the campaign trail and rode a wave of antiwar sentiment to the top of the Democratic field and onto the covers of Time and Newsweek.
Sitting in an RV lumbering through Iowa farmland last week Graham questioned whether "the Howard Dean phenomenon" would have happened had Graham entered the race earlier.
"I would not only have been saying similar things that have gotten Howard such a surge in support, but would have been saying them on the basis of, "Look I wasn't just talking about voting against the war, I actually did it,' " Graham said, as a granddaughter napped with her head on his leg.
"And in terms of executive experience, yes, Howard was governor of Vermont, but I was governor of Florida. There is significant difference both in the scale and the complexity of those two states and how much they can tell you about what sort of president this person would be."
Graham said this without a hint of bitterness or animosity for Dean, whom he respects.
Rather, he was acknowledging that his late entry in the race - he started seriously looking at running in December and, after a delay for heart surgery, announced his candidacy in May - has hurt him more than he expected.
The biggest hurdles? No national fundraising network geared up. And Dean.
The former Vermont governor has run away with the issue that could have distinguished Graham from the pack. In Iowa, where Graham is counting on a strong showing, more than 60 percent of likely caucusgoers opposed the war. The latest Des Moines Register poll of likely caucus voters found Dean leading the field with 23 percent support and Graham trailing at 1 percent.
Florida's senior senator stresses everywhere he goes that in 40 years Democrats have won the White House only with Southern nominees. He won't rule out criticizing Dean and other Democratic contenders harder than he has to date.
But Graham goes nowhere near as far as some Democrats, including fellow moderate Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, in taking on Dean. Lieberman suggested recently a Dean nomination would send the party "back to the political wilderness."
Depending on how Dean's campaign "matures," and the political climate six to nine months from now, Graham can see Dean beating Bush.
"If we're still bogged down in Iraq, with significant loss of life and casualties, and spending a billion dollars a week with no exit strategy, and if the economy is stagnant, then I think whatever Howard's background is, he will have a significant shot," Graham said.
Graham chalks a lot up to timing, but Dean's momentum at his expense is about more than getting into the presidential race early.
Dean has a Washington outsider appeal that Graham lacks, and he has a lot more energy. On the campaign trail, Dean spits out sound bites, while Graham wades through the weeds of policy.
"The Iowa charisma tour," Graham jokingly called his nine-day campaign swing.
Undecided Democrat Harry Baxter of Burlington summed up the view of many others who heard Graham bash Bush's antiterrorism and economic agenda: "I'm very impressed with him. His message is excellent, and he's got the right issues. I just worry a little if he's charismatic enough and dynamic enough."
Iowans will cull the nine-person Democratic field on Jan. 19. Graham is at the back of the pack, though it is too early to write him off. Most likely caucus voters have not made up their minds or are open to switching candidates. Serious stumbles by some of the others could open a path for Graham.
Consider that at this stage in prior primary contests Bill Clinton, Michael Dukakis, George McGovern and Jimmy Carter were underdogs, in some cases barely registering in the polls.
September is do-or-die month for Graham, however.
He plans to raise at least $15-million for the primary, 60 percent of it from outside Florida. So far he has raised just $3.1-million, more than 80 percent of it from Florida. If he doesn't dramatically increase his take by the time he files his next report in mid-October, his campaign could effectively be over.
Graham will spend much of September raising money. He acknowledged the difficulty, though, in starting late. Had he started a year ago, he noted, he would have had an out-of-state fundraising network well in place by the start of the year and be much better positioned now.
He says he still expects a strong showing.
"We planted the seeds that we hope in September will start turning on significant contributions," he said.
If not, Howard Dean's surge will be the least of his problems.