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Eyes on Graham as possible No. 2

As Gore's running mate, the Florida senator would boost the Democrats' chances of carrying the state, analysts say.

By BILL ADAIR and TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 9, 2000


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[Times photo: Pam Royal]
Graham, who has never lost an election, has been visible lately.
Four months before the election, Rosamond Coleman is planning to vote for George W. Bush for president. The Panama City substance abuse counselor is a loyal Republican who likes Bush's position on drug abuse treatment.

But if Al Gore picks U.S. Sen. Bob Graham to be his running mate, Coleman will vote for the Democrat.

"That would make the difference," she said, calling Graham a moderate who always has been friendly and accessible during his long career as governor and senator.

As Gore mulls his options for a running mate, Florida voters like Coleman are at the center of speculation about whether the vice president will pick Graham to be his running mate. Could Graham convert enough undecided and unenthused voters to deliver Florida for Gore?

The answer isn't clear.

"Winning Florida without Bob Graham is more difficult," said state Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who is overseeing Gore's Florida effort. "With him, our chances are much better and I believe we would win. But three or four months away, we don't know what would happen."

Florida Republicans acknowledge a Gore-Graham ticket would mean a tougher fight for Bush. But they predict the Texas governor would carry the state with the help of his younger brother, Gov. Jeb Bush.

Graham on the ticket "brings it closer, but it means we get out and work a lot harder," said state House Speaker John Thrasher of Orange Park.

California and New York are leaning toward Gore. Texas is locked up for Bush. That leaves Florida, with its 25 electoral votes, as the biggest state up for grabs. And it puts Graham, with his moderate views and Florida neckties, in the thick of the guessing game about who will become Gore's vice presidential nominee.

Recent opinion polls indicate Graham would have a significant impact in Florida. Mason Dixon Polling and Research found that Gore trails Bush by 8 points -- 47 percent to 39 percent -- in Florida. Add Graham to the Gore ticket, and the race becomes a statistical toss-up, with Bush ahead, 44 percent to 42 percent.

Pollster Brad Coker said male voters and Democrats largely made up the voters who switched sides if Gore added Graham.

The Graham boost is significant. Florida's other senator, Connie Mack, had little effect in state polls when he was listed as a possible running mate with Sen. Bob Dole in 1996.

More often than not, running mates don't determine which presidential candidates win which states, several politicians and analysts said. The most notable exception is when John Kennedy invited Texan Lyndon Johnson to join his ticket 40 years ago. They won Texas, a state Kennedy never would have carried without Johnson.

With Florida possibly up for grabs, Graham is in the spotlight.

The Hotline, a daily political Web site that keeps track of the number of national media mentions of potential running mates, ranks Graham No. 2 behind Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh. National news outlets are requesting interviews with Florida's senior senator, and Graham has been more visible lately, appearing on Meet the Press and acting as a Gore surrogate to criticize a Bush Medicare proposal.

In an era where Republicans control Florida government as firmly as Democrats did less than two decades ago, Graham is the Democrats' biggest and brightest star.

The Miami Lakes multimillionaire is a 63-year-old former state legislator and two-term governor who has never lost an election. He was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986 and has easily won re-election twice. Graham toyed with running for governor two years ago against Jeb Bush but ultimately chose to remain in the Senate.

But a presidential contest pitting a Gore-Graham ticket against the Bush brothers could be just as tantalizing.

Graham would offer Gore several assets as the vice president goes after Florida's electoral votes. His appeal transcends ideological spectrums and party lines. When he trounced St. Petersburg Republican Charlie Crist two years ago, Graham won 33 percent of the Republican vote. Among voters who consider themselves moderates, Graham won 72 percent of the vote.

But Graham might not be able to help Gore as much among Republicans and rural conservative Democrats.

Gov. Jeb Bush's approval ratings are highest of any governor since Graham's final summer in the office, and Bush also has demonstrated his appeal to voters from both parties in a state that has backed Republican presidential candidates in nine of the last 12 elections. Clinton, however, carried Florida in 1996, the first Democrat to do so since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

David Colburn, a history professor at the University of Florida who has written three books on state politics, says the race "would really test Bob Graham's skills. The Bush name has incredible resonance right now with Florida voters. It's going to be very hard to beat George W. Bush in Florida."

Rick Dantzler, a former Democratic state senator from Winter Haven who was Democrat Buddy MacKay's running mate in the 1998 governor's race, predicted Graham would help Gore in urban areas such as Tampa-St. Petersburg and Orlando. But he believes rural areas such as Polk County would still vote strongly for Bush because many farmers are unhappy with Gore's positions on trade, taxes and water.

"In my neck of the woods, I'm not sure (having Graham on the ticket) is going to make enough a difference," Dantzler said. "I'm not sure it's enough sweet to overcome the sour."

Even in Democrat-rich South Florida, where Gore is strongest, Graham could provide a boost. Butterworth said adding Graham to the ticket would energize Democrats and boost voter participation in an election where he suspects turnout could be light.

Unlike other members of Congress who leave for Washington and lose contact with their constituents, Graham has kept strong ties to the state. While he has shown only occasional interest in helping a state party that is perpetually reorganizing, Graham has cultivated a strong grassroots organization of his own. His workdays in jobs around the state continue to generate favorable publicity.

Longtime supporters from his first race for governor in 1978 still wear "Graham Cracker Backer" lapel pins. And Graham has appointed thousands of Floridians to one panel or another over the past 20 years, including Republicans and independents.

One of them is independent voter Ron Cacciatore. The Tampa criminal defense lawyer attended the University of Florida with Graham, and the senator appointed him last year to a panel that helps screen potential federal judges.

Cacciatore doesn't know whether he will vote for Bush or Gore.

"We were talking yesterday and wondering why we couldn't have a slot that says, "We don't like either one of them,"' he said last week.

But add Graham to the Gore ticket, and Cacciatore's thinking changes.

"There's a better chance I would vote for Gore if Graham is on the ticket," Cacciatore said.

Ron Villella, campaign manager of Graham's 1998 campaign, estimates there are 10,000 volunteers who would be available to work on a Gore-Graham race. Some are Democrats who already planned to help Gore, but he said many are Republicans or independents who will get into the race only if Graham is on the ticket.

"If he runs as the vice presidential nominee, there is going to be such excitement generated -- it will be the same kind of excitement generated the first time he ran for governor," said Villella, a Tallahassee lobbyist.

He said the campaign made a considerable effort to update its computerized volunteer lists two years ago. "That's ready to go in a heartbeat," Villella said. "We could be up and running in two or three days if he were to do it."

Colburn said Graham has a powerful organization. "The Democratic Party could stand to learn from him, quite frankly," he said. "One of the big reasons it can't compete with the Republican Party is that it can't organize."

Graham's true strength, though, hasn't been tested in a while.

The Democrat hasn't had a tough race since 1986, when as a popular governor he defeated incumbent Republican Sen. Paula Hawkins. Since then, Florida has gained millions of new voters who are unfamiliar with Graham's record.

Thrasher said Republicans would remind them of Graham's weak spots. For example, he said, voters would be told about the prison crisis Graham left behind when he moved to the Senate.

"It gives people a chance to talk about Bob Graham's record," Thrasher said. "People don't get a chance to talk about his record."

But former state GOP chair Tom Slade says Florida "is probably the only major state in which an individual selection for vice president could change the political dynamics."

Slade calls Graham "the strongest unifier of the bits and pieces of the traditional Democrat Party in Florida. I know of no other single person who could bring the Democratic Party together as Bob Graham. He will make the race for Bush a much more difficult race in Florida."

One telling example: Wayne Mixson, a longtime Democrat who served as Graham's lieutenant governor. Mixson has donated money to George W. Bush because he likes the Texas governor and he dislikes the long history of scandals in the Clinton-Gore administration. But if Graham's on the ticket, Mixson says he and many other moderates would vote for Gore-Graham.

"There's this broad base of Democrats inclined to vote Republican," Mixson said. "I think they would vote for Bob Graham. I think enough of them would pass over to carry Florida for Gore."

So he is willing to vote for Gore?

"Don't put it that way," he said. "Put it that I will vote for Bob Graham."

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