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Graham campaign buckles under an array of troubles

Sen. Bob Graham's late start, the campaign's lack of funding and political missteps are blamed for his lackluster performance in the presidential race.

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2003

COLUMBIA, S.C. - As Sen. Bob Graham greeted voters at a football game Saturday, a local political reporter gave the Florida Democrat a humbling reminder his presidential campaign is struggling.

The South Carolina reporter said a recent news story suggested Graham was about to drop out of the race. Was that true?

Graham said he had no plans to drop out. "We've got the resources we need to be successful," he said.

Yet Graham's campaign has reached a critical point. He is at the bottom of the polls, lagging in fundraising and generally ignored by the national news media.

What has gone wrong? Why hasn't Graham - Florida's most popular Democrat - become a contender?

Many of the problems stem from his late start. Graham, 66, didn't enter the race until May because of heart surgery.

His campaign is run by veteran Democratic operatives, but they are unfamiliar with him. They've issued statements that often seem out of synch with the cerebral senator. The campaign has suffered from frequent missteps and missed opportunities.

Graham has had a difficult time capitalizing on his antiwar position and his lengthy resume. Voters have complained that he is dull.

Craig Crawford, who covered Graham for 12 years for the Orlando Sentinel and is now a political analyst for MSNBC and Congressional Quarterly, had predicted Graham would be a contender.

"Count me among those who were completely wrong in the beginning," he says. "I really thought Graham was going to make this work."

But Graham says that his campaign is picking up steam and that he is confident he will become president.

"We'll have our moment," he says.

"Wait till next quarter'

Graham's campaign manager is Paul Johnson, a quiet Minnesotan with lots of experience running statewide campaigns. Johnson hired a staff of seasoned Democratic strategists, but none had worked with Graham.

They have been hamstrung by a lack of money and have repeatedly had to say, "Wait till next quarter."

In the first quarter, when he was recovering from heart surgery, Graham collected only $1-million (Sen. John Edwards raised $7-million). Aides promised the second quarter would be strong.

Then, Graham raised only $2-million in the second quarter (compared with $7-million for Howard Dean). Aides said they expected to raise at least $4-million this quarter, which ends today.

Now, they say they will fall short of $4-million, although they won't give a new estimate. Graham said Saturday that "this was a strange quarter. July and August, because they are summer months, are difficult months to do fundraising events."

Missed opportunities

Along the way, Graham's campaign has had its difficulties:

Mistakes and poor planning. Graham's press releases and e-mails to supporters include an unusual number of grammatical errors and typos. A release Monday criticized the Bush administration's "wreckless" drilling policy. In July, the campaign e-mailed reporters about a new state political director but did not say which state. Last week, an outdoor fundraiser in Washington was held beside a busy street, so loud buses drowned out Graham's speech.

The campaign has often seemed out of synch with Graham, issuing blistering statements that don't sound like the senator. An item on the campaign Web site in August referred to no-bid contracts being awarded to Halliburton as "a disgusting situation."

Lack of identity. Graham tried to position himself as the antiwar candidate and the one who can beat President Bush. But Howard Dean has often been identified as the antiwar candidate and Wesley Clark is now being called the most "electable" candidate.

Missed opportunities. Graham met dozens of voters at the college football game in Columbia on Saturday, but campaign workers made little effort to follow up. They had no literature to give voters, nor did they keep a list of names for future mailings.

Internal troubles. Crawford said Graham's family has been playing too big a role in directing the campaign. Crawford said Graham "has got some hired guns around him, but if they've got to take orders from the wife and kids, you've got a problem."

Lack of pizazz. Graham's speeches have often failed to inspire voters. Although he occasionally fires up a crowd - an appearance in Columbia Saturday night got a good reception and even moved one woman to tears - voters often say he is too low-key.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, said Graham chose the right issues - intelligence and national security - but hasn't capitalized on them.

Graham "isn't breaking through" because of his speaking style, Jamieson said. "There are people who are bright and competent who are not good at oral communication."

Crawford says the senator "has an old-school speaking style that is very halting and deliberate, which is not up to speed with the modern, remote-control TV age."

Wordy ways

Another problem for Graham has been the absence of Bob Squier, his longtime political consultant who died in 2000.

Squier often convinced the senator to use snappy lines. It was Squier who persuaded Graham to call himself Bob instead of the name he used when he entered politics, D. Robert.

But without Squier to push him, Graham has resorted to his wordy ways.

"Graham misses Squier," said Charlie Reed, a longtime friend of the senator.

Reed said that Graham's new consultant, Karl Struble, has gotten Graham to use snappy lines for TV spots, but the senator has not used enough of those lines in his speeches. "It just doesn't get translated," Reed said.

Graham says he has improved and that his speaking style is not as bad as some people say.

"I have had a speaking style which has gotten me elected five times in Florida, so it must not be that uncommunicative," he said.

Johnson said he is upbeat about the campaign's future.

"I don't think our financial situation is dire at all," he said. "I'm comfortable where we are."

He said there are no conflicts with Graham's family. "They've been very supportive and helpful," he said.

Johnson acknowledged problems with staffers who've written statements that were too strong and said that Graham "has lectured us that he wants to be hard but respectful of President Bush."

Graham lacks the money to wage a campaign in all of the early states, so he is focusing on Iowa. Asked about rumors that he would soon be cutting staff because of the sluggish fundraising, Graham said, "We are always evaluating our organization as to how we can better achieve our objectives."

Johnson, the campaign manager, says, "This is not a candidacy that is going to electrify a room right away. It's like making bread. You've got to let it rise for a while."

- To read an interview with Graham about his campaign, go to www.sptimes.com/adairjournal

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