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Likelihood of Graham as V.P. falls

Still, the Democratic senator is a hot topic among Florida's delegation to the Republican convention.

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By TIM NICKENS and BILL ADAIR

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 2, 2000


PHILADELPHIA -- Sen. Bob Graham's chances of becoming Al Gore's running mate are fading.

The evidence is circumstantial but compelling.

Although Gore says he will announce his choice in just six days, the Florida Democrat's business background has not been reviewed as it was in 1992, when Bill Clinton considered Graham before choosing Gore as his vice presidential running mate.

Today, Graham leaves on a Senate trip to Yellowstone National Park. Then he plans to disappear into the Grand Tetons on a family vacation starting Saturday. Those are not the plans of a politician poised to jump onto the national stage no later than Tuesday, when Gore plans to introduce his running mate in Nashville.

Graham's dimming prospects can be attributed partly to events outside his control that occurred within the past two weeks.

Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell of Georgia died, and Democrat Zell Miller, the former Georgia governor, was appointed to fill his seat. That narrowed the Republicans' advantage in the Senate to just 54-46, so a swing of four seats in November could alter the balance of power. Democratic leaders in the Senate have appealed to Gore not to upset their chances of taking control by selecting a senator from a state like Florida where a Republican governor would appoint the replacement.

George W. Bush's selection of former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney also has hurt Graham's chances. Many Democrats and Republicans now expect Gore to choose someone younger to contrast with Cheney, who was chief of staff for Gerald Ford in the 1970s and looks older than his 59 years.

Graham is 63 years old, although he looks younger, and would be the oldest of four men on the two tickets.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts is 56. Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana is 44. Both are reportedly still on Gore's short list.

Other damage to Graham's prospects has been self-inflicted.

His performance during a tryout speech last month in Nashville has been widely criticized as flat and disjointed.

Despite the difficult venue, a bar where many listeners were more interested in beer than in a Florida politician, the reviews get worse every time C-SPAN reruns the speech.

Then there are the constant jokes about Graham's personal notebooks, from late night talk shows to the staid Meet the Press.

Floridians find the Democrat's habit of jotting down every mundane detail of his life quirky and endearing.

The national media has ridiculed it as odd and nutty.

Amid all of this, there is no evidence that the Gore campaign is gathering more information on Graham. Such vetting efforts would be one indication that he remains a serious candidate to become the running mate.

Bill Graham, the senator's nephew who runs the Graham Cos. in Miami Lakes, said Tuesday that no one from the Gore campaign has contacted him about the senator's business records. There would be eight years of records to review, and he acknowledged the nature of the business has changed since the last vetting.

"They've not been here," said Bill Graham. "They haven't called."

That contrasts with eight years ago, he said, when the Clinton campaign sent accountants to South Florida for several days to scour the company's books.

Gov. Jeb Bush and some Republican members of Florida's congressional delegation believe Gore will choose someone other than Graham. The governor said recently that his "e-mail traffic" indicates the favorite is Massachusetts' Kerry.

"I don't think Graham gets picked," Rep. Mark Foley, R-West Palm Beach, said Tuesday.

Of course, Graham's prospects could change this weekend.

Gore is saying nothing publicly about who is up or down in the veepstakes, and his campaign aides said Tuesday that no one has been told they are out of the running. The presumptive Democratic nominee also has a reputation for switching clothing styles, rhetoric and campaign managers without notice.

In Florida, Gore campaign workers and fundraisers said they have heard nothing that leads them to believe Graham is no longer under consideration.

"I think Cheney makes Graham a perfect choice," said Karl Koch of Tampa, the executive director of Gore's state campaign committee.

Taking no chances, the Republican Party still is preparing as though Graham could become Gore's running mate.

Within the last week, the Republican National Committee has requested from the Charlie Crist campaign information about Graham's voting record and a videotape of the 1998 Senate campaign debate between Crist and Graham.

"My planning and strategy is assuming he is going to be the nominee," Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas said Tuesday at the Republican National Convention where Graham's chances continue to generate political chatter. "He has a good shot if for no other reason that there are not a lot of good choices."

The best argument for Graham is still that he could help Gore compete for Florida's 25 electoral votes. Cheney is widely viewed as a selection based on Bush's vision for an administration instead of on electoral politics.

"I think the Graham plan is purely a one-state play," said Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition and an adviser to the George W. Bush campaign.

Adding Graham to the ticket would make Gore more competitive in Florida, where several opinion polls show Bush with a single-digit lead. But Cardenas said the Republican polls show Graham adds no more than three percentage points to Gore's total and would not guarantee a victory for the Democrats.

If Graham were Gore's running mate, the state GOP chairman said, the contest would boil down to a battle between Graham and Gov. Jeb Bush. Both men have high approval ratings, but Cardenas contended the governor's supporters are more enthusiastic.

"Jeb Bush is received like a rock star, and Bob Graham gets polite applause," he said.

Koch said Cardenas is just trying to steer the Gore campaign away from Graham.

"Scare'em off a little bit," he said. "Nothing has changed since Bush picked Cheney."

- Washington bureau chief Sara Fritz contributed to this report.

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