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Election 2004

Graham's shot at VP tied to state's loyalty

The senator's a likely choice for running mate if John Kerry believes he'll deliver Florida.

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
Published July 3, 2004

WASHINGTON - Sen. Bob Graham has been Florida's most formidable Democrat, a two-term governor and three-term U.S. senator who trounced one Republican after another.

But if Graham is picked as Sen. John Kerry's running mate, can he deliver his home state?

That's a key question facing Kerry in the final days before he announces his running mate. Although Graham has other attributes that might help the Democratic ticket - such as his gubernatorial experience and his expertise in national security - he would be most valuable for his clout in Florida. If Graham can win Florida, he may deliver the election.

"I don't think there is any question about the fact that Bob Graham would be the strongest Democrat to run in Florida," said Tom Slade, former chairman of the Florida Republican Party.

Graham would probably give Kerry a boost with Hispanic voters and senior citizens, two groups that have supported him over the years.

But Slade and some political analysts say Graham is not as popular in Florida as in the past. He hasn't had a difficult campaign since his first Senate race 18 years ago, and he may have alienated moderates and independent voters with his sharp criticism of President Bush. Also, Graham was regarded as a lackluster candidate during his presidential run last year.

"I have real doubts that Graham automatically delivers Florida," said Craig Crawford, a political analyst for MSNBC and Congressional Quarterly. The state is more Republican than when Graham established his reputation, and many new residents are unfamiliar with him.

"I think the biggest liability is that there are such doubts about his campaign skills after the presidential run," said Crawford, who said Graham did not perform well in debates.

Graham remains on Kerry's short list, according to people familiar with the selection. The others include Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri. Some reports have speculated that Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida is also under consideration.

Kerry is expected to announce his choice in the next week or two.

An exit poll from Graham's 1998 re-election illustrates his broad appeal. He won 65 percent of Hispanic voters, a third of the Republicans and 36 percent of the people who voted for Gov. Jeb Bush.

Graham has built a large, statewide organization since he first ran for governor in 1978. With his trademark "work days" and more than 20 years of appearances at county fairs and local fish fries, the Harvard-trained lawyer has a vast network of Floridians who could help the Democratic ticket.

"He has built up a tremendous reservoir of goodwill in the state," said Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist, who lost to Graham in the 1998 Senate race. But Crist said he still expected President Bush to prevail in the state.

Party activists have speculated that if Graham is chosen, he will spend weeks campaigning in Florida. Even if it doesn't guarantee a win, Graham's presence would force President Bush to spend more money and time in the state.

Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the Cook Political Report, said Graham would give the ticket more southern appeal.

He would "help Kerry address the issue of being a Massachusetts liberal. Graham is someone who could campaign in the South where Kerry can't."

Polls show the presidential race in Florida is a dead heat and that Graham, who is retiring from the Senate, is still highly regarded. A poll of 1,209 registered voters last week by Quinnipiac University said 58 percent approved of Graham's performance, compared with 47 percent for Gov. Jeb Bush and 46 percent for President Bush.

Earlier polls were not as favorable for Graham. A March survey by the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald showed he didn't boost Kerry's numbers in the state and that Graham's numbers were about the same as Edwards'. However, the results may have been affected by the heavy news coverage of the Kerry and Edwards campaigns during February.

Many Democratic activists believe Graham would help Kerry in the state, although some have reservations about how well the 67-year-old senator could cope with the rigors of campaigning. He had a heart bypass operation last year.

Beatrice Schwartz, a party activist in Broward County, said Graham "could do a fabulous job as the running mate." But, she said, "When I saw him last on TV, he looked tired. It's difficult to campaign these days. It's a big long, state."

Chris Hand, a former Graham aide who now works as a lawyer in Jacksonville, said Graham could determine the election.

"The bottom line is that over the scope of this man's career, he's been a moderate, a pragmatist, someone who works well with the people of every affiliation," Hand said. "To the extent (the presidential race) is a tie in Florida, it's hard to believe Bob Graham wouldn't break that tie."

[Last modified July 3, 2004, 01:00:34]

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