By TIM NICKENS
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 19, 2000
Let's take a deep breath before we get our Florida ties all in a knot.
Chances are, Bob Graham is not going to be Al Gore's running mate.
It's fun for Floridians to dream about the current senator and former governor joining the Gore ticket. And we'll write plenty of serious, speculative stories about it between now and the Democratic convention in August. With the nominations decided ridiculously early, talking about potential running mates will pass the summer.
But we have been teased before.
Graham was supposed to be on Bill Clinton's short list before he picked Gore in 1992, remember? Sen. Connie Mack was in the running to be Bob Dole's running mate until Dole picked Jack Kemp in 1996, right?
So calm down -- and remember that this sort of game is going on in other states besides Florida. In Indiana, they're not speculating about Graham as Gore's running mate. They're talking up Evan Bayh, their own popular senator and former governor.
Last week, Graham was at Gore's side in Miami and Tallahassee. Attorney General Bob Butterworth, Gore's state chairman, is promoting Graham to Gore and every reporter who calls.
"I think there is a chance," Butterworth said last week. "He is very well qualified for the job. He is very bright, very savvy and he is not going to make mistakes."
But Graham might not prove to be as popular nationally as he is in Florida. He is not among the Senate's leaders, despite his accomplishments behind the scenes. He also is seen as rather dull, even though he once arrived at the annual press skits in Tallahassee dressed in a white military uniform and accompanied by the Florida A&M marching band.
There is no guarantee that Graham could deliver Florida for Gore if he joined the ticket. Graham was running for re-election against lightly regarded Republican Charlie Crist in 1998 as Buddy MacKay was running against Jeb Bush for governor. MacKay is still looking for Graham's coattails.
What a Gore-Graham ticket would do is force the Bush brothers to work harder to win the state and divert Republican resources from other battlegrounds. You can bet Gov. Jeb Bush is not going to let himself wind up like Michigan Gov. John Engler, who promised to deliver Michigan for the Texas governor in the primary and failed miserably.
If Graham joined the ticket, it would be the next best thing to Graham facing Jeb Bush in the 1998 governor's race. Graham flirted with that possibility before deciding to run for re-election to the Senate.
Last week, he sounded ready to take on the Republican who lives in the same Governor's Mansion where he spent eight years. At Leon High School, where Graham's four daughters graduated, the senator praised a judge's decision to overturn Jeb Bush's tuition voucher program.
"I don't want to be presumptive," Graham told the crowd at Gore's victory celebration, "but I might suggest the governor doesn't live very far away from here. Maybe somebody ought to invite him down to see what a real public school is like."
Graham's presence on the ticket also would help Butterworth erase memories of 1988.
Until last week that was the only other time Gore appeared by himself on a Florida ballot. He finished a distant fourth in the presidential primary that was won by the Democrats' eventual nominee, Michael Dukakis.
Jon Mills, who was speaker of the Florida House and one of Gore's top supporters, recalled that one of the reasons Dukakis did well in Florida's primary was Butterworth.
Mills, the interim dean at the University of Florida law school, said Butterworth recently called to line up other long-time Gore supporters and told him, "Jon, let me start with this. You were right in '88."
Dukakis proved too liberal for Florida and the country, losing badly to Bush's father, George. Since then, Florida also has become more Republican. The Republican Party has narrowed the Democrats' lead in voter registration to less than 400,000 voters, and it controls both the Governor's Mansion and the Legislature.
But Butterworth said the lessons he learned a dozen years ago will influence Gore's state campaign now.
First, he said, Dukakis failed to take advice from Florida Democrats and ignored the state after the primary. Clinton also devoted little time to Florida in 1992 and regretted it after narrowly losing the state to George Bush. Butterworth said Gore intends to keep full-time campaign staffers here through the November election.
Second, Butterworth and other Democrats believe the Dukakis disaster contributed to MacKay's loss to Republican Connie Mack in the closest statewide Florida election ever. Now Mack is retiring, and Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson is the only Democrat running for the Senate against two Republicans, U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum of Altamonte Springs and Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher.
"When Al Gore asked me to be his chairman, I said I am not going to be sitting around here again and watch Bill Nelson lose like I did in 1988 with Buddy MacKay," Butterworth said, "and he said, "That is not going to happen. We are going to be here until the end.' "
Graham's presence on the ticket would guarantee that.
As usual, Graham won't give a straight answer. He said last week he likes the job he has and is thankful for the opportunity to serve. But the betting here is he would accept an invitation if Gore asked him to join the ticket.
Chances are, it won't happen.
But it would be fun for Florida if it did.