Graham, of Florida, says he won't seek re-election to Senate

Announcement sends would-be successors of both parties into action

November 04, 2003|By John Kennedy and Tamara Lytle | John Kennedy and Tamara Lytle,ORLANDO SENTINEL

TALLAHASSEE - Democratic Sen. Bob Graham said yesterday that he would not seek re-election to a fourth term, sending a pack of possible successors scrambling to start their campaigns and turning Florida into a key prize in the fight for control of the U.S. Senate.

Graham, who will turn 67 on Sunday, announced his decision while taking a break during one of his trademark "workdays" with a roofing crew at Tallahassee's Lincoln High School.

"This has been a very difficult decision for me and my family, and I know for some of you it is a disappointment," said Graham, who abandoned his faltering campaign for the presidential nomination less than a month ago.

Rest of his life

The former two-term governor, one of the most dependable vote-getters in Florida for a generation, said his decision had hinged on how he wanted to spend his remaining years.

Graham's presidential bid was delayed by heart surgery earlier this year.

"I would not be so morbid as to say it was my own mortality," Graham said. "But it was, what I hope, a thoughtful assessment of what I wanted to accomplish in the next phase of my life, and where I could best accomplish it."

Graham's announcement quickly rippled through Florida and the halls of Congress, where he became the fourth Southern Democrat to announce retirement this year.

That leaves his party with a huge challenge in a region that has shifted toward Republican leadership in recent years.

"They seem to be taking on water in the South with Senate seats," said Jennifer Duffy, Senate expert for the Cook Political Report, which handicaps races.

Republicans currently hold 51 seats in the 100-member Senate. It's a majority yet not enough to assure the 60 votes needed to cut off debate on the most controversial topics.

Valuable leverage

But losing even a few seats means less bargaining power for Democrats because Republicans will have an easier time picking off a few Democratic votes to stop filibusters.

If Republicans get to near 55 votes, Democrats "are going to get rolled on every issue," Duffy said.

Republicans already have a good chance to win a seat in Georgia because Democratic Sen. Zell Miller is not running and no strong Democrat has emerged in the race, Duffy said.

Republicans also see an opportunity to pick up seats in North Carolina and South Carolina.

Democratic Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana also has said he might retire.

With Graham's departure, Florida is clearly among the states where Republicans can smell victory.

Republicans running to replace Graham include Bill McCollum, a former 10-term congressman who lost a Florida U.S. Senate bid in 2000; Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd; state Sen. Daniel Webster; and Larry Klayman, a Miami conservative activist.

On the Democratic side, three hopefuls - and possibly more - who have had their campaigns largely on hold pending Graham's decision suddenly have something to run for.

U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch plans to formally declare his candidacy next week. U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, a black Democrat, has talked of running but so far has kept a low profile.

Dan Allen, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Graham's decision not to run will be costly for Democrats nationally. Graham could have cranked up his own fund-raising machine, but other Democrats will now have to rely on major help from the national party.

"It would be a very costly state for the Democrats to have to defend," Allen said.

But Mike Siegel, of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the current contingent of Democratic candidates has raised more than Republicans already in the race. And a close presidential contest could draw many Democrats to the polls, he said.

"Republicans need to be worried," Siegel said. "It's a strong state for us in getting our base out."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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