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Democrats jockey for runner-up in Florida

Sen. Bob Graham leads while other presidential hopefuls plan for now and if he bows out.

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 24, 2003

[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Bob Graham, surrounded by cheering family, walks through the streets of Des Moines at the Iowa State Fair Parade. Graham was in the state campaigning earlier this month.

Joan Joseph brushed off John Kerry's advisers late last year when they asked her to talk up the Massachusetts senator's interest in running for president.

The Palm Beach County Democrat was too busy working for a mayoral candidate to worry about a presidential election two years away.

So Kerry's people left Joseph alone - until 9:05 a.m. the day after the March mayoral election, when they called again to enlist her help.

Candidates for president have been aggressively raising money and courting volunteers for months in the country's biggest battleground state. For now, the battle is to be No. 2 behind Florida U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, and to be well-positioned to sign up Graham's supporters if his struggling campaign folds.

Graham's rivals for the Democratic nomination raised more than $1.9-million from Florida through the end of June. That is nearly as much as the $2.2-million Graham raised in his home state. And now the other candidates are eyeing Graham's fundraisers.

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, despite campaigning aggressively in Florida as Al Gore's running mate in 2000, has not been able to carve out a clear advantage. The race to win over Florida's Democratic activists and donors appears to be a contest between Lieberman, Kerry and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

"There are different tracks for different candidates," said former Florida Democratic Party chairman Mitch Ceasar of Fort Lauderdale. "I see a lot of grass roots activity for Howard Dean, and I see significant money for Graham, Kerry and Lieberman. But we're not seeing a merging of those two tracks for any one candidate."

By the time Florida holds its March 9 primary, 30 other states will have held caucuses or primaries, and the Democratic nominee likely will be decided. The fight for support in Florida is mostly for party activists and donors.

Other than Graham, Kerry has raised the most Florida money, about $580,000 through June 30. Lieberman, whose Florida fundraising chief left the campaign several months ago, has raised $495,000. He had a slightly stronger showing than Kerry in the second quarter, an indication that he is gaining momentum, said Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who is Lieberman's national finance co-chairman.

Graham may not have locked up all of Florida's Democratic donors, but he has made it much harder for his rivals. Most of Florida's traditional donors are with Florida's senior senator, even though many doubt his prospects. The Orlando Sentinel editorialized last week that Graham should drop out of the race for president and seek re-election to the Senate.

At least 75 Graham contributors have given to other candidates, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis. Most of those contributors gave to Kerry, Lieberman or North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

Many other Florida fundraisers are fending off calls from other presidential campaigns in deference to Graham.

"Graham gives everybody a place to hide for a while," said Allan Katz, a Tallahassee city commissioner and Democratic fundraiser.

Phil Levine, a Miami media executive and major fundraiser for Bill Clinton and Al Gore, is with Graham and in no rush to commit to someone else.

"There's just no candidate who's shining bright," he said. "I don't see anyone getting much traction right now."

Graham's candidacy has pushed Democrats to move beyond Florida's traditional base of donors. Even rivals credit Kerry for being particularly effective at pulling in Floridians new to fundraising.

"He's done a very good job working young professionals, and I think it's really paid off for him," said Mike Abrams, a Miami-Dade lobbyist and former legislator who supports Graham.

Kerry's camp has aggressively courted 30-something professionals who have no longstanding allegiances to Graham, particularly in South Florida. In North Florida, lawyer Rodney Margol, a newcomer to political fundraising, has raised about $115,000 for Kerry.

"Based on my conversations with people across the state, I don't think there's any question that Sen. Kerry is clearly the second choice of those people currently supporting Sen. Graham," said Margol, who met Kerry in 1972 after inviting the Vietnam war hero-turned protester to lecture at the University of Florida.

Berger disputes that assessment.

"There's an enormous institutional framework that's in place for (Lieberman) if Bob Graham's not in the race," he said, noting South Florida support that ranges from major donors to condo leaders to Cuban-Americans.

The Graham campaign dismisses speculation about dropping out of the race and continues to tap Florida donors. He will hold fundraisers Tuesday in Tallahassee.

That isn't keeping others from raising money in Florida.

President Bush, who in one day in June pulled in $3-million with quick stops in Miami and Tampa, is expected to hold fundraisers Sept. 9 in Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale.

Lieberman returns to South Florida for fundraisers Sept. 11 and 12. His wife, Hadassah, is expected in Tampa later in the month.

"There's a lot of excitement over Lieberman. If there wasn't a lot of enthusiasm, he wouldn't keep coming back to Florida," said Miami banker Adrienne Arsht, a key fundraiser for Bill Bradley in 2000 who is helping Lieberman.

Kerry plans fundraisers in Miami-Dade and Broward counties Sept. 23. His wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, is expected to campaign for her husband in Tampa on Oct. 1. The Kerry campaign also plans a dove hunting fundraiser outside Tallahassee in October.

Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt is expected back in Florida in early October for fundraising events in South Florida. Like Lieberman, the Missouri congressman's Florida fundraising was hit hard because of his reliance on longtime Democratic fundraisers who wound up with Graham.

Edwards managed to raise nearly $450,000 in Florida, largely through fellow trial lawyers. He has an Atlanta-based fundraiser concentrating on Georgia and Florida, but Democrats say he has been invisible in Florida since early this year.

Then there's Dean, who is making inroads on an entirely different track than the rest of the top Democratic candidates.

Unlike Kerry, Lieberman and Gephardt, who have paid fundraisers based in Florida, Dean hasn't yet raised major money from the state. But his campaign is generating more grass roots buzz and enthusiasm than any other.

Longtime party activists say Dean has energized more young people than any other presidential candidate in years. They are gathering at coffee shops to plot strategy, taking it upon themselves to speak about Dean at nursing homes, and raising small donations over the Internet.

"The people supporting him are people who will work hard, who will go door-to-door and will register voters," said Barbara Miller, a Graham supporter and longtime Broward County Democratic activist. "It's exciting to some of us old-time activists, because we need that new generation."

On Friday, Dean supporters hosted 25 "house parties" across the state, where Dean spoke by conference call. The Vermont-based campaign hoped each one would raise about $1,000.

- Computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com


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