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Trying Graham on for size

This is an awkward time for Florida Sen. Bob Graham. He has said he is interested in becoming vice president, but the unwritten rules of politics say he shouldn't look eager.

[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
Florida Sen. Bob Graham, center, watches as National Park Service Director Robert Stanton congratulates Hillary Clinton after a speech Sunday.

By BILL ADAIR

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 18, 2000


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ELLIS ISLAND, N.J. -- With first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton a few feet behind him, Sen. Bob Graham pointed to the dilapidated buildings at Ellis Island and said they are "a national shame."

The Florida Democrat told the crowd of 400 people that he was "stunned at the state of disrepair" of many of the buildings and that the nation has an obligation to repair them.

Monday's event was supposed to draw attention to Graham's efforts to repair national parks, but it was also part of his unofficial tryout to be Al Gore's running mate, an opportunity to show he can play the many roles of a vice president.

At a fundraiser Saturday night in Nashville, Tenn., he played the loyal Democrat, firing partisan zingers at Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Two weeks earlier on Meet the Press, he played the legislative architect, discussing his Medicare drug plan.

Graham and his aides say he is not campaigning for the job. They say that they had been planning the Ellis Island event for months and that his high profile on Medicare is a coincidence caused by the timing of congressional votes.

Still, the flurry of public events has put Graham in the spotlight at a convenient time, introducing him to many Democrats who knew little about him. But the burst of attention has also shown Graham the perils of the national spotlight, as he has been the subject of several unflattering stories in the past 10 days.

Last week, a Washington Post columnist made fun of Graham's habit of writing mundane details about his life in little notebooks. A New York Times columnist said his decision to release the notebooks to reporters showed he was desperate to get on the Democratic ticket.

Graham's Nashville speech helped to fuel speculation about his chances because the Gore campaign invited him to substitute for the vice president. Florida Democratic chairman Bob Poe said the invitation showed that Graham is under serious consideration.

"It's Gore's home state," Poe said. "He could have asked anybody."

photo
Adele Graham fixes her husband's hair while they wait for Hillary Rodham Clinton to arrive for their tour of Ellis Island on Monday.
The Tennessee fundraiser provided a glimpse of the scrutiny and challenges Graham could encounter if he's picked.

Outside the event Saturday night, Republican protesters handed out fliers that made fun of Graham's notebooks. The flyers had mock entries that said he had called Gore adviser Naomi Wolf for advice on footwear ("Loafers or cowboy boots?"), and had revised his speech to "stay away from Buddhist Temple jokes."

At the event inside the cavernous Wildhorse Saloon, a country music hall, Graham found a surprisingly tough crowd.

It was filled with loyal Democrats, but many of them came to drink beer and chat with friends rather than listen to Florida's senior senator. The program began with speeches from more than a dozen Tennessee Democrats, so by the time Graham came on stage to deliver the keynote address, the crowd was restless.

Graham began with a story about Jimmy Carter's mother -- he even imitated her Georgia accent -- but the joke fizzled. He got a better response to his jokes about the football rivalry between the University of Florida and the University of Tennessee, and his partisan jabs at the growing budget deficit under Bush.

"When you look at what's happening in Texas today, you better be scared and hold onto your wallet!" Graham said.

Many people weren't listening. Realizing he wasn't connecting with them, Graham tried to liven the speech by picking up the microphone and walking around the stage. But people in the back had difficulty hearing him because so many others were talking loudly at the bar.

Later, Graham acknowledged that he had trouble, but joked, "I felt I had the first 10 rows of the crowd."

Graham, on a ferry to Ellis Island, says his visit had been planned for months, but others see the event as part of his unofficial tryout for vice president.

The hall had at least 20 rows, however.

This is an awkward time for Graham. He has said he is interested in becoming vice president, but the unwritten rules of politics say he should not look eager.

His willingness to discuss the No. 2 job backfired on him last week.

The New York Times Magazine portrayed him as overly eager, quoting him as saying that he was qualified because he had been a governor and senator and knows the "personalities" of Congress and the executive branch. Graham's detailed answer contrasted with that of Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, another top candidate, who declined to talk with the New York Times reporter because he was afraid he would be seen as posturing for the job.

Graham said he was merely being responsive to the reporter.

"He asked me a question. The thing I said is historically obvious," he said.

On Monday, Graham was content to stay in the background. As the first lady toured Ellis Island with other Democrats at her side, Graham walked behind her and wrote in his notebook.

The spiral pad made him the subject of ridicule last week. Time magazine published segments from one notebook that showed he watched Ace Ventura: Pet Detective on the day a grandson was born.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen parodied Graham by writing a minute-by-minute account of his own day, saying that Graham "is either the dumbest man in Washington or the most honest." He concluded that Graham is honest because "1. He does not act dumb, and 2. He is related to my boss." (Katharine Graham, the former chief executive of the Post, was married to the senator's half brother.)

New York Times columnist Gail Collins skewered Graham for showing his notebooks to Time magazine, saying that he was "apparently searching for a really dramatic coup to put himself back in contention" to become running mate.

Graham, who has allowed many reporters to see the notebooks over the past two decades, said he was merely responding to a request.

"Our general policy is one of openness," he said. "I believe as a public official or a candidate, you have an obligation to give the public the information they think is relevant."

But Graham also got favorable press coverage over the weekend. The Nashville Tennessean had a front-page story that said state Democrats were "fairly salivating" over the prospect of a Gore-Graham ticket.

All the attention didn't faze Graham during his weekend trip.

"I've been in this business a long time," he said during an interview on the plane to Nashville. "I don't get emotionally affected by what other people do or say."

When reporters ask about the vice presidency now, he politely sidesteps the question and reminds them of his responsibilities as senator.

"I am working hard at the job I've got and I'm not going to be distracted by speculation."

When a reporter asked Clinton if she thought Graham would make a good vice president, she replied: "I am very fond of Sen. Graham. I've really admired him as a governor, because I knew him very well as a governor, and as a senator. He's just first rate, as you all in Florida know."

When Graham's plane arrived back in Washington on Monday afternoon, he got another reminder that he was under the spotlight.

Graham asked Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat who happened to be sitting several rows behind him, to hand him a suitcase.

"I'll be happy to carry the bag of the future vice president," Baucus replied. "Can I carry another bag?"


-- Times political editor Tim Nickens contributed to this report.

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