Quiet force enters race

March 03, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - And now there are nine. With the announcement that Sen. Bob Graham of Florida will seek the Democratic presidential nomination, that's the number of hats in the ring for the pleasure of taking on President Bush next year.

Ordinarily, with a White House incumbent riding at 61 percent job approval in the most recent Gallup Poll, members of the opposition party could be expected to take cover and wait for the end of his second term to make their moves.

But George W. Bush's first two years in office have convinced this bumper crop of Democratic hopefuls of two things. First, that his presidency has been a disaster in both domestic and foreign policy terms. Second, unless the economy sharply improves by 2004, enough voters will agree to make a Democratic victory possible.

The impending war in Iraq has injected a special uncertainty into the Democratic prospects for 2004. Mr. Graham joins four others of the nine who are against the prospective invasion. But a swift and successful conclusion of a war against Iraq could drive out or sharply debilitate the others - former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, all longshots.

Mr. Graham also is the only one of five members of Congress running who voted against the president's war resolution last fall, but he will not be a one-trick pony as a candidate. As a two-term governor of Florida before election to the Senate in 1986, Mr. Graham has a well-rounded rM-isumM-i as a middle-road Democrat.

Equally important, he is a Southerner in a party that has elected only Southerners to the presidency in the last 36 years - Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. And he is regarded as the most popular politician in Florida, a state that will be critical in the 2004 election, and of particular significance to Democrats after the election fiasco of 2000.

Another immediate uncertainty for Mr. Graham is his health. He is just recuperating from major heart surgery, but filing papers of candidacy conveys his confidence that he will be fit to undertake the grind of a presidential campaign. However, the other leading candidates - Sen. Joe Lieberman, the 2000 vice presidential nominee, former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards - have a jump on him in organization and fund-raising.

Concerning money, at least, Mr. Graham should be able to make up ground, especially in his home state. His candidacy may complicate the tasks of Mr. Lieberman in competing for the heavy Jewish vote in Florida and of North Carolinian Edwards there and elsewhere in the South.

Mr. Graham is a relatively uncharismatic but likable and diligent campaigner who broke into statewide politics in 1978 with an appealing strategy of "job days" across Florida, working side-by-side with average Floridians.

I first encountered him on the assembly line at a chicken processing plant, plucking feathers as the dead birds passed his work station. Other stints included a day as a hotel bellboy, when he surprised his opponent for governor by taking his bags as he checked in.

Mr. Graham's candidacy puts an increased spotlight on the 2004 Democratic primary in South Carolina, now scheduled to be the third nomination test on the calendar, on the heels of the kickoff precinct caucuses in Iowa and the first primary in New Hampshire. Mr. Edwards obviously has already been pointing to that first Southern contest.

For all his experience, Mr. Graham has largely functioned in Washington under the political radar, although he was considered a possible running mate for Mr. Clinton in 1992 and for Al Gore in 2000. A former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, most recently he has been critical of Mr. Bush's Iraq policy on grounds the president should be focusing more on the terrorist threat and homeland security.

With a wide open field, the mild-mannered Mr. Graham can offer a comfort level to Democratic and independent voters that could be appealing in a time of turmoil at home and abroad.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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