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Choice of Cheney good for Graham

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 26, 2000


Over the Fourth of July weekend, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney spent time going over a list of possible vice presidential running mates at the Texas governor's isolated ranch.

But Bush recalled Tuesday that he kept thinking the best choice was sitting right next to him. A nationwide search wound up right back where it started, in Bush's tight inner circle.

The selection of the former defense secretary as Bush's running mate is safe, solid and certain to resonate with voters who needed just a bit of reassurance.

Cheney fits Bush's top requirements. He's loyal. He is prepared to become president if need be. Even better, he brings a steady hand to foreign policy and national security, areas where Bush appeared to be most vulnerable.

But enough about them.

The parochial question this morning is what Cheney's selection means for Florida Sen. Bob Graham's prospects to become Al Gore's running mate. The answer is that it doesn't hurt and might help.

Bush's selection of Cheney gives Gore more freedom to choose a running mate. The vice president isn't in the box he would have been in if Bush had somehow lured Colin Powell onto the ticket, or even if a woman such as Elizabeth Dole had popped up.

Gore also doesn't have to counter one old hand with another like former Sen. George Mitchell, who reportedly is on his list. Knowledge of foreign affairs or familiarity with the Senate are not Gore's problems.

Bush joked that he did not pick Cheney with the Electoral College in mind. Cheney is in the oil business in Texas, which already was locked up. He switched his voter registration last week to Wyoming, which he represented in Congress.

Wyoming has just three electoral votes.

"What they have done in essence is put two Texans on the ticket," said Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, Gore's state chairman.

Florida has 25 electoral votes, and Bush and Gore are behaving like they are very much up for grabs. Both sides have spent more than $1-million on television ads here this summer. You don't spend that kind of money if you have it won or have given up.

Graham is the best possibility for Gore if he goes by the electoral map. Democrats do not argue that adding the man with the Florida ties to the ticket hands Gore the state. But it certainly would improve the Democrat's chances. Even better, it would make Republicans sweat in a state they initially counted as an easy win.

The counter argument is that the Rust Belt will decide the election. Gore isn't doing so hot in several of those key states, including Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Illinois, which any Democrat needs, is looking a bit better.

Trouble is, there's no dominating personality in that area who would have an impact like Graham would in Florida.

Sen. Evan Bayh in Indiana, who is reportedly on Gore's list, isn't one. Neither is Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is a former war hero who might have some appeal, but he certainly wouldn't be considered a Midwesterner to voters.

Another argument for Graham, Florida Democrats contend.

"I think Bob Graham continues to add a dynamic to the ticket that allows Al Gore to spend a lot of time campaigning in the Midwest while Bob Graham campaigns at home and locks up Florida," said Karl Koch of Tampa, the chairman of the Floridians for Gore executive committee.

Graham also might have appeal in the South beyond Florida's borders. Fort Lauderdale lawyer and Gore fundraiser Mitchell Berger pointed out that Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina all have centrist Democrats as governors.

"These people all look like Bob Graham politically," Berger said.

Bush has campaigned as a new leader for a new era after Clinton-Gore. But his selection of Cheney will be portrayed by Democrats as turning back the clock. He was chief of staff to President Gerald Ford and secretary of defense under President George Bush. Gore could play off that by picking someone younger, such as Bayh or even North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. That would be aiming for the same fresh-scrubbed approach that worked for the Clinton-Gore team in 1992.

Graham, at 63, is four years older than Cheney and would not fit the bill (although he certainly looks younger and appears healthier than Cheney, who has a history of heart trouble).

But Graham has a longer resume than either Bayh or Edwards. On the issues, he also would provide a compelling counterpoint to Cheney.

The Republican's congressional voting record, according to Congressional Quarterly, "placed him among the most unyielding members of the Republican right" despite his image as a pragmatic politician.

On education and the environment, Graham has occupied the more moderate ground as governor and in the Senate.

Predictably, Florida Republicans praised Cheney's selection.

Gov. Jeb Bush: "He's a man who has respect all over the world. I think he adds to the ticket."

Sen. Connie Mack: "I served with Dick Cheney in the House and have great admiration for his ability to be an effective unifying force and dedicated team player."

Rep. Bill McCollum, who is trying to succeed Mack and attended a Texas fundraiser for his campaign that was hosted by Cheney: "Dick Cheney is a true leader with a proven record, and a man of principle with a solid vision for America."

All gushing, and all true.

But by playing it safe, Bush provided an opening for Gore to look in any direction he wants as he chooses a running mate.

Including Bob Graham's.

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