Emphatic Graham says he won't run
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001
CORAL GABLES -- U.S. Sen. Bob Graham closed the door on a possible run for governor in 2002, telling a group of top Democrats Saturday night that the party should look to a new generation of political leaders.
"I know in this gathering there is a next generation . . . and I encourage you to take that step," said Graham, who had been high on some people's lists as a potential candidate to take on Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.
"This state, more than any time in my political career . . . needs to have a strong Democratic governor," the popular former governor told about 70 elected officials and fundraisers at a $5,000-per-person weekend planning session at the posh Biltmore Hotel.
"There are some things seriously wrong going on in Florida today," Graham added.
Graham surprised many supporters when he emphatically told reporters Saturday night that he would not run.
"I have no intention to run for governor," he said after his speech.
Bob Poe, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, said that although he was disappointed that Graham took himself out of the running, he was still optimistic.
"You'd love to have the front-runner run," he said. "But we've got time to put together the kind of campaign we need to win."
Graham's announcement came after Democrats held a daylong, private session on how to unseat Bush.
Still stinging from the close win by Bush's brother, George W. Bush, in the state's presidential election, Democrats are regrouping and hoping to sustain momentum they gained in that race.
The list of potential Democratic candidates is an open field, ranging from state Attorney General Bob Butterworth to U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler of Boca Raton to Tallahassee Mayor Scott Maddox.
Butterworth expressed hope that Graham would change his mind and decide to run.
"I think Bob Graham would be the best person to be the next governor of Florida," Butterworth said. "I'm his No. 1 fan."
Graham served as the state's governor from 1978 to 1986 before he went to the U.S. Senate.
He turned down a run for governor in 1998.
Democrats hold both U.S. Senate seats but little else in Florida. Republicans hold the governor's mansion in addition to controlling the state House and Senate, Cabinet and U.S. House delegation.
Poe said he expects a gubernatorial candidate to emerge by the end of the legislative session in May.
"No question about it, the 2000 election energized Florida Democrats," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida who has also served as an adviser to Jeb Bush. "They feel like they have a good shot at recapturing the governor's chair."
The weekend meeting was expected to raise up to $350,000 for the Democrats, said spokesman Tony Welch.
Gov. Bush is waiting until June to announce his plans regarding re-election.
Poe said he hopes Bush decides to run.
"The best thing you can have in either sports or politics is a strong rivalry to build the intensity," Poe said. With Jeb Bush, "we have that intensity," Poe said.
"Our people are very focused. They're still very angry" over their presidential election, Poe said. "The fact that we were denied our victory . . . has energized people to say they're not going to let it happen again."
Bush has been criticized by Democrats on many issues, including his overhaul of affirmative action and his school voucher initiative.
After the meeting, U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, of Tampa, said he's considering a run for governor.
"I'm happy doing what I'm doing, but I'm terribly distressed at the direction state government is taking," he said.
Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne, who has also been mentioned as a potential candidate, acknowledged that how George W. Bush fares as president could affect his younger brother's campaign.
"If George W. is popular, it's obviously an advantage to Jeb," he said.
Former President Clinton, who has been staying at the Biltmore this last week, mingled with the group at a closed reception Friday night for about 45 minutes.
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