Working his angle

April 21, 2003|By Jules Witcover

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, launching his campaign for New Hampshire's January presidential primary, strolled up Elm Street the other day, the traditional route of candidates courting the state's politics-hardened voters.

A small gaggle of reporters and television cameramen, mostly from Florida, tagged behind as he leisurely introduced himself to pedestrians, many of whom had never heard of him. Then he entered the Merrimack Restaurant, the walls of which are covered with snapshots of many past winners and losers.

"Hello, I'm Bob Graham of Florida and I'm running for president of the United States of America," he would say, as if his listeners might not grasp what office he was seeking. That, however, is a mistake few in this state ever make, because White House aspirants are as seasonal here as the heavy snows.

As he moved unhurriedly from booth to booth chatting easily with lunching locals, many said they found him a warm and likable man who deserved further attention. And Mr. Graham says he will be soliciting it in the same unusual way that earned him two terms as governor of Florida and then three in the U.S. Senate.

Since 1978, Mr. Graham by his own count has spent 386 days as an odd-job man. He has campaigned by performing workdays in a range of offices, factories, and all sorts of other places, side-by-side with working stiffs to learn about their labors and ask for their support.

The approach has proved effective in Florida, and Mr. Graham expresses confidence that it will work again for him here and in the other early delegate-selection tests in Iowa, South Carolina and elsewhere. It's his intention, he says, to work in each state's major industries, such as farming in Iowa and tourism in New Hampshire.

Mr. Graham already has some experience dealing with tourists. When he first ran for governor in Florida, he worked as a hotel bellhop and wound up, unwittingly he insists, carrying the bags of his primary opponent, Florida's then-attorney general.

As he tells the story, when he toted the suitcases to the hotel penthouse, his opponent's wife answered the door and informed him that "the general is taking a nap." The next day, the local paper ran the headline: "Bob Works While the General Sleeps." He won and has continued to carry the heavy bags of electoral office ever since.

Mr. Graham owns up to one workday outside Florida, in 1980 when he lost a bet with the governor of Oklahoma on the Orange Bowl game between Florida State and Oklahoma and put time in drilling for natural gas. At another Orange Bowl, he served as a linesman for the game between Southern California and Iowa, noting he handled the chains on the Iowa side. The fact will probably not go unmentioned in the Iowa caucuses that precede the New Hampshire primary in January.

Mr. Graham will need more than gimmicks, however, to carry this early-voting New England state. An obvious hurdle could be his Senate vote against authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq to rid the country of weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein or both.

He argues Mr. Bush's priority should have been -- and still should be -- "that which has the greatest capability of doing harm to America -- this shadowy group of international terrorists, starting with al-Qaida" and including others "who tend to be clustered in Syria and Syrian-controlled Lebanon."

The United States, he says, "is several years late in confronting the Syrians with the sanctuary they've provided these very violent terrorist groups." It should be done now, he says, diplomatically, or if necessary by mobilizing "a very large coalition" to wipe them out. One of "the consequences from the war in Iraq," he says, "is the need to re-establish the alliance that is still fighting the war in Afghanistan and will be critical in winning the war on terrorism on a global basis."

It's clear that Mr. Graham is no peacenik and is prepared to challenge Mr. Bush on his conduct of that war -- a challenge some other Democrats seeking the 2004 nomination seem uncertain about taking on.

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

Columnist Ellen Goodman is on vacation.

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