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Were Graham's prospects more publicity than reality?

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By TIM NICKENS and BILL ADAIR

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 8, 2000


On one of his famous work days, Sen. Bob Graham was loading frozen french fries into a cargo container when he first figured he was out of the hunt.

News reports he heard while working in Miami a week ago no longer were listing him among the finalists to become Al Gore's running mate.

But the full details of the ups and downs of Graham's chances are difficult to retrace.

It's Lieberman

Lieberman brings integrity, decency

A day after Graham got the feeling he would not be chosen, Florida Democrats were still talking him up and confident he was still in the running.

Instead, Graham became an also-ran in the vice presidential sweepstakes for the third time in 12 years. At 63 years old, the former governor appears to have hit a glass ceiling in the Senate.

As Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut celebrated his selection as Gore's running mate Monday, Graham was on vacation in the Grand Tetons and answering questions about why his stock fell in the secretive selection process.

As usual, Florida's senior senator sounded upbeat and without regrets. He dismissed questions about whether his chances were hurt by an unimpressive speech in Nashville in June or the national media's obsession with the notebooks he fills with daily minutiae.

"I am recording this at 9:10 a.m. Mountain Time -- conference call with picky Florida reporters," Graham joked.

Hours after the news media reported Lieberman was the choice, Gore called Graham on Monday afternoon to personally tell him the news.

Graham has fielded similar calls before. He also was in the running when Michael Dukakis picked Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas in 1988, and when Bill Clinton chose Gore in 1992.

The popular former Florida governor acknowledged after he was first elected to the Senate in 1986 that he thought about the presidency. Graham's friends and fellow Democrats say they expect Graham to remain in the Senate for years to come.

Charles Reed, Graham's former chief of staff in the governor's office and the former chancellor of Florida's university system, said Monday that suits Graham just fine.

He said Graham likes the Senate better than he did in 1992, when Clinton came close to picking Graham as his running mate before settling on Gore. Reed said Graham feels he can have more of an impact now on issues such as Medicare and the creation of a new prescription drug benefit for seniors.

Reed, who spoke with Graham several times during the selection process, recalled one conversation in particular.

"I said, "Do you really want this?' " he recounted. "He said, "If it's offered, I'll do it, but if it's not, I will be okay.' I thought that's a great, mature approach to this kind of business."

Graham apparently came closer to becoming Clinton's running mate eight years ago than Gore's now.

For example, Graham never filled out a questionnaire or submitted any personal financial information to the Gore campaign. He had one interview with former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in the middle of the day at Graham's Washington town house. But he had not talked to Gore since a fundraising dinner June 24 in South Florida.

Meanwhile, the Gore campaign was requesting information from the other senators on the short list, including Evan Bayh of Indiana and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, according to newspapers in those states.

Eight years ago, several accountants from the Clinton campaign spent days wading through the books at the Graham family's Miami Lakes business, the Graham Companies. This time, no one showed up from the Gore campaign or even called.

It is unclear now how far Graham made it into Gore's selection process and how much was hype by the media and Florida Democrats.

"Did we create some false hope?" Florida Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe asked rhetorically. "Probably. Maybe we thought if we wished it, if we talked it up ... "

But even Poe and state Attorney General Bob Butterworth, Gore's state chairman, had little credible inside information.

Last Wednesday afternoon, Poe said, he met with Gore campaign chairman William Daley in Nashville. He said they discussed two Florida scenarios, one with Graham on the ticket and one if Gore chose someone else. Daley said it was good to discuss options because it was only a "one chance in five" that Graham would be on the ticket, Poe said, leading him to believe Graham was still in the running.

But Thursday, the Gore campaign released the names of six finalists: Bayh, Kerry, Lieberman, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.

No Graham.

Butterworth said Monday he does not think Florida Democrats were misled about Graham's chances by Gore. He and Poe praised the selection of Lieberman, and they insisted Gore still will be competitive in Florida.

Democrats already have spent more than $2-million on television advertising in the state, plan to open several field offices and expect Gore to attend a South Florida fundraiser Aug. 23.

"I think it's a fantastic choice," Butterworth said of Lieberman. "Obviously, I would much rather have seen Bob Graham."

-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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